Unlocking history: Oldest building on National Mall set to get makeover

By Devin Dwyer, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps

Turns out a taxman’s house is the oldest building still standing on the National Mall.
 
The 178-year-old stone structure – known as the Lockkepper’s House – sits at one of the busiest intersections in Washington, D.C. It’s been dilapidated for decades, but is about to get a multi-million dollar makeover.
 
“Constitution Avenue was actually the Washington City Canal…food was dropped off here, goods were dropped off here, and the lockkeeper collected the taxes and took notes and took records about what came in and out of this city at this wharf,” Caroline Cunningham, the president of the Trust for the National Mall, said in an interview outside the house, which was once the gateway to commerce in the nation’s capital.
 
More recently it served as a jail, storage hut and even a public restroom before being shuttered entirely in the 1970s. “A place for dead birds,” said Cunningham. “It’s deeply sad that it’s been closed for such a long time.”
 
“Power Players” got a rare peak inside the decrepit Lockkeeper’s House, which is nestled between the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial.
 
It will soon undergo a massive restoration project funded by the Trust for the National Mall and American Express.
 
Cunningham said she expects the effort will resurrect a piece of forgotten American history.
 
“It gives us a glimpse into the past,” said Cunningham, who described what people would have seen if they could have visited the Lockkeeper’s House at the height of its use in the mid-nineteenth century.
 
“They would have seen an active river that was bringing goods and services. They would've actually seen right across the way next to the Washington Monument where veterans from the Civil War were being treated. There was a hospital there,” Cunningham said. “They would've seen animals grazing not too far off the Washington Monument grounds. People actually came and brought picnic baskets to watch parts of the Civil War that were just across the river in Virginia.”
 
After it was built in 1835, the house served as both a workplace and home for the Lockkeeper and his family. But once railways overtook canals as the main means of transferring goods, the Lockkeeper’s House ceased to serve its original purpose in 1873 and has undergone many transformations since.
 
Once its 21st century makeover is complete -- a process that will include lifting and repositioning the structure several feet away from its current position on the busy curbside of Constitution Avenue -- the Lockkeeper’s House will serve as an educational center for visitors and a threshold to the history beyond the house’s walls on the grounds of the National Mall.
 
“We want to be able to use both doors, so people can go in and out of both doors, to create a space for people to really have programming, have the rangers … talk about the history,” Cunningham said.
 
Lockkeeper's House on the National Mall