Millions visit the expansive National Mall each year in Washington, D.C., to see the towering Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, Washington Monument and more. They likely walk right by the Lockkeeper’s House — a diminutive, storied house, nestled at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. But the oldest building on the National Mall is now at the forefront of its revitalization.
Built in 1837, the 350-square-foot building was home to the lockkeeper of the Washington City Canal. The house was originally situated on the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, when 17th Street was a wharf and Constitution Avenue was the canal. The canal became defunct in the middle of the 19th century, turning into an open sewer and a health hazard, until it was filled in the early 20th century. Later, a road widening project resulted in the house sticking out into the street. So, in 1916, the house was moved out of the street and placed closer to the Mall, on what is now the sidewalk along Constitution Avenue. After being boarded up for over 40 years, the house was moved once again in 2017 and now sits 30 feet inland from its previous spot.
The house is now in the final stages of a renovation and will soon be open to the public. Part of a larger project by the Trust for the National Mall, the Lockkeeper’s House will contain an educational exhibit, explaining its history and the Trust’s plans for the Mall.
Senior Project Director Teresa Durkin is surprised that the house has not been demolished because it was built for utilitarian reasons, not to be a grand building.
“Someone must have been looking out for this house,” said Durkin. “It has endured and that’s why I love it so much.”
The $6 million renovation is intended to transform the abandoned building into a state-of-the-art educational tool. The house uses a geothermal cooling system, with three 350-feet deep wells, regulating the temperature. The current exhibit, a collection of posters, is temporary, and the Trust is working on a more permanent interactive exhibit, featuring projected images.
“It will continue to evolve into the most modern, cutting-edge, interactive exhibit space that we can bring here,” said Durkin. “That’s what will keep this house another 100 years.”
The small size of the house has made designing an exhibit particularly challenging, but the Trust is confident that visitors will enjoy the space. The house is intended to provide a three to five minute experience, so Durkin knew it would be important to create a surrounding area that would also be inviting. The house is situated on a newly built granite plaza, chosen to match the appearance and resiliency of the rest of the Mall, which has lots of shade and seating available.
Limited tours will begin later in the month with an official ribbon cutting planned for September 13. Kate Greenberg, vice president of marketing & communications with the Trust, says she is excited for those first visits because they will inform future planning for the space.
“The soft opening in the summer will give us a lot more information about how visitors will move through the space,” said Greenberg. “When we do the official rededication in September, we’ll have a better sense of what’s definitive.”
While the design of the exhibit may change, the content will continue to teach about the history of the house and the area surrounding it.
“Most people think the National Mall was always the way it looks today when in fact it has evolved quite a bit,” said Durkin. “This house is a piece of that history.”
The Trust for the National Mall is an official non-profit partner of the National Park Service (NPS). The National Mall has more than $840 million in deferred maintenance, and the Trust is slowly chipping away at that need with the help of private donors.
“We are in lock step with what [NPS] has already identified as their priorities,” said Greenberg. “We come with interesting ideas and new approaches that they might not have thought of for the spaces, but we don’t come with a whole new project and say you should consider this.”
The Lockkeeper’s House is the first project in the restoration of Constitution Gardens, a 36-acre park within the boundaries of the National Mall. Ongoing projects include a rebuild of the U.S. Park Police Stables and making improvements to accessibility at the Jefferson Memorial. The Trust’s next goal is to restore the lake in the Gardens.
“We think of Constitution Gardens as an oasis in the middle of all these other prominent memorials and icons, some of which can be quite emotional for people,” said Durkin. “This is a place that will be different. It will be a place that once it’s completed, you can relax, have some fun, and learn.”
The process was long and complicated according to Durkin, and at one point, there were 11 concepts for the house being considered. But despite the challenges, she is happy with the final design and eager for the building to be open to the public.
“I don’t think anyone thought the house would look this good,” said Durkin. “It looks better than it did when it was first built.”
Talia Wiener is an intern on NPR’s National Desk.