The oldest structure on the National Mall will be restored, moved 32 feet and turned into a visitor’s center, the Trust for the National Mall announced Tuesday.
The small stone building, a 19th century remnant of the Washington Canal system known as the “Lockkeeper’s House,” sits at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street. The building, which is in a state of extreme disrepair, has been shuttered for the past 40 years.
Renovations, funded by a $1 million grant from the American Express Foundation, will be completed by August 2016, says Kristine Fitton, a spokeswoman for the Trust for the National Mall.
“It will serve as an orientation point for people coming onto the mall, where people can stop and pick up brochures and plan their visit,” she says.
Built around 1835, the Lockkeeper’s House housed a federal worker who collected tolls at the intersection of the Washington City Canal and the C&O Canal. That worker may not have been very busy, says local historian Robert Pohl.
“The Washington Canal never really worked the way it was supposed to,” he says. “Half the time it was dry, and the other half of the time it was flooded.”
The canal, which ran the length of what is now Constitution Avenue, was supposed to make D.C. a center of trade and commerce. Soon after being built, it became an open-air sewer that ran right by the White House. The fetid, stagnant water may have even given Abraham Lincoln’s son, William, the typhoid-like illness that killed him in 1862. Ten years later, Congress decided to cover it up — leaving what Pohl calls a “river of slime” underneath the National Mall.
Today, that slime pit and the Lockkeeper’s House are all that remains of D.C.’s attempt to become a hub of commerce. The city became a tourism hub instead — with about 29 million people flocking to the Mall each year. Soon, the Lockkeeper’s House may be one of their first stops.