Move Of Historic Lockkeeper’s House First Step In Renovation Of Constitution Gardens

Daniel Woldorff

Until recently, the historic 185-year-old stone building known as the lockkeeper’s house sat right at the curb of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street — next to six lanes of traffic whizzing by the National Mall. Now, after a carefully orchestrated move coordinated by the National Park Service and the Trust for the National Mall, it sits 30 feet further inland, in a much calmer spot.

“We have buses coming by all day long, and the vibrations are not doing the house any good,” said Teresa Durkin, a landscape architect with the Trust for the National Mall, explaining the decision to move the house.

The move is the first step in a major renovation of part of the Mall, which is intended to highlight an important part of D.C. history. The lockkeeper’s house was built in 1832, when the traffic in that area looked very different. At that time, Constitution Avenue was a canal.

“All of the land west of the Washington Monument was [the Tiber Creek], and 17thStreet was a very long wharf where lots of goods and services were traded,” Durkin explained.

She says the house sat where it did because the lockkeeper’s job was “to collect tolls from any boat that came down the canal delivering goods to Washington, D.C.”

After the railroads replaced waterways, the house fell into disrepair and was left abandoned for decades.

Moving it was the first step toward giving it a new life. Durkin says the refurbished house will open to visitors in early 2018 as an education exhibit that may focus on the importance of waterways to D.C.’s early economy. It may also include an exploration of climate change — the house sits at the low point of a flood plain so it could be a useful place to talk about sea-level rise, she says.

An artist’s rendering shows what the Trust for the National Mall envisions for a renovated Constitution Gardens area.Trust for the National Mall

“We’re going to give it a purpose,” Durkin said, “and the purpose will still be good 100 years from now, in that it’s a witness to its part of the history of the National Mall.”

Re-purposing the house is part of a bigger renovation project for that part of the Mall.

“We’re restoring the lake so that it’s a real biological lake,” Durkin said. “We’re restoring the soils so that the trees will thrive. We’ll create gardens in Constitution Gardens where there are no gardens now. And we will build a beautiful pavilion on the plaza.”

The area will include a restaurant, more exhibits and even an ice skating rink,” Durkin said. “It’s going to be a great and exciting destination here.”