17 Jul 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: The Decline and Fall of Pipetown

Over the past few weeks we have looked at Pipetown and the decline and fall of Pipetown resident William Steele. His life mirrored the changes that were sweeping through the neighborhood.

The first major change was the laying of the Baltimore and Potomac Rail Road lines through the area, effectively cutting off Pipetown from the Anacostia. This also meant that the land south of the tracks became much less interesting for residences, and was thus taken over by the Washington Gas Light Company for use as a gasification plant.

This change finally gave a reason for the name. While one newspaper article much earlier had argued that “Pipetown” was a corruption of “Piketown,” there is no indication that this was indeed a name used for the area. Given its general lack of use in the days before the Civil War, it would have been surprising if any name had been used for the neighborhood. A resident of the area who was interviewed by the Overbeck history project also claimed that the name came from the number of women who sat on their porches smoking pipes at the time.

The WGL plant in 1946. A few of the houses of Pipetown can be seen along the left edge of the picture. (Washington Navy Yard Naval Archive)

One other origin was posited by James Croggon in the Evening Star of May 4, 1905:

Skirting the Eastern branch were some houses to which the name of ‘Pipetown’ attached, and there is a legend that the name was given because of a row over a pipe in the days when a Dr. Lynch was located there.

The name Pipetown was used less and less as the 2oth Century progressed. It seems to have survived longest as a name for a baseball team, the Pipetown Tigers. In 1908, it was the site of a balloon ascent that was notable for the identity of one of its passengers: Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (pic)

The Washington Gas Light plant remained on the site until the 1980s, long after the name Pipetown had passed into history. A 1983 study of the US DOT and the government of D.C. describes the area as follows

The 14 or more individual structures include a variety of architectural styles, forms and plans. With the exception of the tanks, most of the buildings are red brick, two-story with a couple one-story and one three-story building. All the buildings have gable roofs, some with clerestories, and have exterior walls articulated by corbeling, recessed brick panels, segmental arch windows and similar details. The most elegant of the buildings is the Gas House that contains stained glass in the window and door transoms, a cast iron staircase to the street door and segmental window arches. Coal gasification furnaces still exist in one of the buildings.

None of this was to last long, as it was torn down and replaced by two buildings in which defense contractors with business at the Washington Navy Yard have found their offices. A small piece of what was once Pipetown remains between north of the Southeast Boulevard and south of K Street, from 12th street to Barney Circle.

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