Snows Court had been a microcosm for social and economic issues within the District of Columbia, and throughout the country, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid twentieth century. Snows Court, an alleyway, was established by C.A. Snow, a wealthy publisher of the National Intelligencer and longtime resident of Foggy Bottom (Borchert, 1971, p. 25). This property is located between 24th and 25th streets and between I and K streets on Lot One of Square 28 within Foggy Bottom. The alley consisted of a greenhouse, in addition to houses that were rented out for profit. Initially the area hosted mostly Irish immigrants, but demographics changed over time. For instance, during the Civil War the area was used to nurse wounded soldiers (Borchert, 1971, p. 25). Following the war, a large influx of freed slaves flocked to alley dwellings such as Snows Court due to cheaper rent prices (Borchert, 1971, p. 271). During the post-war period the population of Snows Court increased immensely, but with this growth came problems. The area became associated with crime and poor living conditions due to the sheer amount of people in the area. Due to this increase in population, Snows Court became one of the most undesirable residential locations in the district, housing mostly poor, black, domestic workers (Gillette, 1995, p.113) [SEE FIG. 6] . Over time as the city began to evolve many powerful individuals within the city thought that the area needed to be redeveloped and the conditions needed to be changed. The Alley Dwelling Authority, in addition to benefactors within the community, helped trigger this progression from abysmal conditions to a thriving neighborhood.
Alley dwellings were becoming increasingly more dangerous to live in toward the end of the 19th century. Census data from the 1860 and 1870 shows that an influx of African- Americans after the end of the Civil War caused a housing shortage, resulting in a multitude of people moving into alley dwellings, such as Snows Court. In the Map of Washington City, District of Columbia, Seat of the Federal Government: respectfully dedicated to the Senate and the House of Representatives, 1857, Boschke presented a general survey on the build-up and construction of D.C., including the Snows Court alley and other residences in Square 28 [SEE FIG. 1]. However, in contrast to the 1873 map which shows large lots with sunlight and ventilation, these alley dwellings were not equipped to handle the number of new residents, and this demand for housing allowed builders to cut corners [SEE FIG. 2]. According to Charles Weller, author of Neglected Neighbors, the alley houses lacked basic necessities [SEE FIG. 7]. The buildings in Snows Court were without heat, water connections, and sewage drains (Green, 1962, p. 148-149). In addition to these conditions, the alley houses were cramped quarters in which even the kitchens were used as bedrooms. In the 1906 article “Short of Big Task for Men in the Slums”, The Washington Times described health inspector Dr. Woodward’s struggle to radically improve the health conditions in the Snows Court alley. Woodward recalled that the residents dressed in insufficient clothing that could not possibly keep them warm during the cold winter. He also mentioned the lack of sewage connections, as well as, limited access to clean water [SEE FIG. 5].
These conditions were a result of overpopulation, as Snows Court was Foggy Bottom’s largest inhabited alley and housed up to three hundred people by the 1890s (Sherwood, 1974, p. 20). The Map of the City of Washington Showing Location of Fatal Cases of Zymotic Diseases for the Year Ending June 30, 1891, highlighted the issue of the overcrowded alley dwellings located in Snows Court [SEE FIG. 4]. Despite the lack of recorded evidence that residents in Snows Court were spreading disease due to the poor living conditions in the alleyways, the information presented by other primary sources and scholars overwhelmingly supports the idea that the poor living conditions in D.C.’s alley areas led to the spread of disease.
Just as Snows Court was widely associated with disease, throughout the early twentieth century it was also affiliated with crime. For example, Constance Green concluded, “A considerable body of white Washingtonians clung to the belief that ‘alley evils are simply due to the racial traits of their principal inhabitants- colored people’” (Green, 1962, p. 154). While these racial attitudes were generally held by many white Washingtonians, other evidence was presented to the public to strengthen the association between alleys and crime. For instance, Jacob Riis, author of How the Other Half Lives, which explored New York slum areas, claimed that Washington’s slums were even worse than those in New York. Riis addressed an Associated Charities meeting warning, “The influences they exert threaten you, for the handsome block in whose center lies the festering mass of corruption is rotten to the core. The corruption spreads, my friends, and you will pay the bill” (Gillette, 1995, p. 117). This relationship between alleys and crime was reinforced throughout Washington D.C., from influential figures, like Jacob Riis, to the city’s daily newspapers. One example of this affirmation, through newspapers, that Snows Court was a haven for crime, was through The Evening Star’s 1932 article, “Blinded by Lye,” in which a wife threw lye water into her husband’s face, potentially blinding him [SEE FIG. 8]. While this conservative newspaper further instilled the idea, among the public, that Snows Court was a center of corruption, less widely circulated papers, such as The Chicago Defender, called attention to foul play by the city’s white police officers. In the1941 article, “2 Cops Set Free at Attack Trial,” The Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper,explains that although police officers brutally attacked the residents of Snow’s Court, they were acquitted of all charges. [SEE FIG. 9]. Although some newspapers did recognize offenses committed by white officers, these papers were not as widely circulated as The Evening Star. With continual reinforcements from influential figures and Washington’s central newspapers, alleys like Snow’s Court were constantly associated with crime, making redevelopment an inevitable future for the alley dwelling community.
In regards to redevelopment, Snows Court is an ideal example of how racial and cultural evolution motivates the transformation of architecture in Washington DC. For instance, the initial idea of ‘alley dwellings’ occurred around the mid-1800s when wealthy businessmen, needing somewhere to house their workers, began to build frame houses onto the back of their own homes (Borchert, 1971, p. 271). This practice, and the acute difference in wealth can be seen in an 1887 fire insurance map, created by G.M. Hopkins which shows that in Square 28, a number of small, dense frame structures were surrounded by a number of larger brick structures (Hopkin, 1887, p.2). However, over the course of the years, as the face of poverty changed, so did the residents of these alley dwellings. At their initial creation, their first occupants tended to be lower class whites, but by the 1897, African American’s made up 93% of alley residents (Lessoff, 1994, p. 202). Because of demographic change, these alleyways and their residents came to be stigmatized by the more affluent citizens in the area, accusing them of being dangerous, plague-filled streets (Gillette, 1995, p. 112). Thus, in 1934 with the creation of the New Deal, also came the creation of the Alley Dwelling Authority, an organization formed with the intention of ‘cleaning up the slums’ (Clement, 2012, p. 435). The effort to clean Snows Court is described in an article in the Sunday Star. The article details the transformation of Snows Court showing before and after pictures. The wealthy individuals of Foggy Bottom wanted to rejuvenate the alley to allow for growth in the community.
While this project came to a halt with a higher demand for housing during WWII, in the late 40s, a restoration began in Georgetown and slowly spread to Foggy Bottom, causing many of these ‘slum-houses’ to be redeveloped in ‘coach-houses’ (Borchert, 1971, p. 288). This radical change from multiple impoverished African-American family homes to a single, wealthy white family household can best be seen Borchert’s 35mm photograph [SEE FIG. 11]. Other signs of economic and architectural redevelopment are shown through the photograph highlighting the commercial building at 930 Snows Court [SEE FIG. 12]. Overall, the Snows Court of the early twentieth century would be unrecognizable to Foggy Bottom residents today, for the area has not only changed physically, but also demographically, with a tendency to house wealthy and typically white residents.
Research, analysis, and text (revised) by Emily Niekrasz, Natalie Petruch, Jordan Davy, and Blake Snyder (2015)
Borchert, James. "The Rise and Fall of Washington's Inhabited Alleys: 1852-1972." Record of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 71/72 (1971): 267-88
Clement, Bell. "Wagner-Steagall and the D.C. Alley Dwelling Authority." Journal of the American Planning Association 78, no. 4 (2012): 434-48.
Gillette, Jr., Howard. Between Justice & Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Green, Constance McLaughlin. Washington: A History of the Capital 1800-1950. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962.
Lessoff, Alan. The Nation and Its City: Politics, "corruption," and Progress in Washington, D.C., 1861-1902. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Sherwood, Suzanne Berry. “Foggy Bottom 1800-1975: Study of the Uses if an Urban Neighborhood.” PhD diss., The George Washington University, 1974.