December 10, 2014

The Lockkeeper's House on the National Mall Receives $1 Million for Restoration

  • By: Dennis Hockman

A few years ago we featured a travel story in a travel story in Preservation magazine about the C & O Canal magazine about the C & O Canal and the restored lockhouses that can be reserved for overnight stays while hiking or biking along the canal tow path. So when I was invited to the unlocking of a related lockkeeper’s house that hasn’t been open to the public in more than 40 years, I jumped at the chance -- despite torrential rains.

Before the house is restored, it will be moved 32 feet further away from the busy intersection.

Orchestrated for journalists and other invited guests, the unlocking celebrated a $1 million grant from American Express to the Trust for the National Mall. With a long history of supporting historic preservation and the nation’s built heritage, American Express adds the 178-year-old Lockkeeper’s House to a list of more than 500 historic places to which it has donated in excess of $50 million. Other Washington, D.C., icons benefiting from American Express Foundation grants include Union Station and the Washington National Cathedral.

Once inside the Lockkeeper’s House it became clear just what that million bucks would be going toward. Though the building seems to be structurally sound, the floor plan had been cut up to accommodate public restrooms that functioned until the early 1970s, and only perimeter walls of the building remain anything close to what might have been original. (Check out my photos below of the Lockkeeper’s House, and you’ll see what I mean.)

After spending a half hour or so learning about and photographing the building, I shared a cab with the American Express Foundation’s President, Timothy J. McClimon, which gave me the opportunity to ask him what about this particular building inspired the grant. He said that he had long been considering how to contribute to historic preservation at the National Mall, but the foundation doesn’t make grants for unidentified maintenance and restoration work. He wanted to find a specific preservation project with long-term impact that the foundation could support.

Right to left: </strong></em><em>Timothy McClimon (American Express Foundation), Caroline Cunningham (Trust for the National Mall), and Bob Vogel (National Park Service) announce a $1 million grant from the American Express Foundation.

This window opening illustrates the thickness of the building’s stone walls.

“When the Trust for the National Mall suggested the Lockkeeper’s House,” says McClimon, “I knew we had our project. It is the oldest building on the Mall, it’s prominently located in one of the most visited areas of the Mall, and it’s a great touchstone to the city’s early history.”

Official partner of the National Park Service, the Trust for the National Mall is dedicated to National Mall restoration and visitor experience projects, creating opportunities for millions of annual visitors to connect with the area’s rich history. On hand for the announcement and tour of the disused Lockkeeper’s House, Trust for the National Mall President Caroline Cunningham offered a brief history of the building as well as plans for restoration.

In coordination with park service staff, including Bob Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, the Trust’s restoration plan calls for lifting and moving the building back around 32 feet away from the road and heavy street traffic (it has already been moved twice for similar reasons). Once relocated, preservationists will complete extensive interior and exterior restoration, including energy-efficient mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems, making the Lockkeeper’s House the first National Mall site to be renovated with an eye toward sustainability.

As detailed in the Preservation magazine story, lockkeepers’ houses were built as homes and workplaces for keepers and their families. This house, however, is unusual among the other surviving lockkeeper’s houses as it was constructed for a lockkeeper of the C & O Extension, a commercial corridor between the C & O and the Washington City canals.

When railways largely replaced canals for commercial shipping after the Civil War, the lockkeepers’ houses were no longer needed. And then around the turn of last century, this house in particular became even more isolated from the Potomac River and the C & O during the establishment of Potomac Park, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Reflecting Pool.

In 1902, when ownership of the house transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers, the building operated as a watchman’s house and tool shed. Adaptations made to convert the building to public restrooms when it transferred to National Park Service are still evident today.

Now, after more than forty years of vacancy, a plan is in place to not only restore and improve the building, but also to establish it as an educational space for the 29 million annual visitors to the park. Restoration is scheduled to complete in 2016, just in time for the National Park Service centennial.

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Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived in historic apartments and houses all over the United States and knows that all old buildings have stories to tell if you care to find them.

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