The part of Washington, D.C., now known as NoMa has seen many changes over the 400-plus years since the first British settlers arrived at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Below you will find a brief historical overview in four sections: pre-1791; 1791–1900; 1901–1987; 1988–present. Each section offers a narrative about the time span plus representative historical images. (Image sources and credits are in the final section.) This project is part of a multifaceted effort by the NoMa BID — including our street pole banners and our Gateways Project — to celebrate the neighborhood’s deeper history.
Before the Capital city (Pre-1791)
“Years ago before the City of Washington was even contemplated or its site known by the white people, a small Indian village on the eastern branch of the Potomac River, called Nachatank was then one of the most important of several small settlements.”
—“A Brief History of Anacostia, Its Name, Origin and Progress,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society
Prior to settlement by the English in the 1600s, the area surrounding the meeting point of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers was home to longstanding Native American tribes. The area was a bountiful habitat for hunting and foraging. Between the two rivers, the Tiber Creek was also a valuable resource, draining into 2,500 acres of land that would eventually become the nation’s capital.
The rivers and streams that flowed into the Potomac brought many tribes into contact with one another, including the Powhatan from Virginia, the Piscataway from Maryland, and the Nacotchtank in the District. Within the boundaries of the District, the Nacotchtank lived primarily along the Anacostia, with settlements sporadically and strategically placed to access resources. They were hunters, fishermen, and warriors, living off the richness of the land along the Anacostia and throughout the District.
With the arrival of explorers and settlers, the Native American populations experienced violence, displacement, and death. According to information from the National Museum of the American Indian, the Nacotchtank were absorbed into local, more powerful tribes.
Not yet officially designated as the nation’s capital, most of the land in the District was part of Maryland. Land records from 1663 show that Francis Pope owned a 400-acre tract of land he called Rome, and a creek, which he would popularize as the Tiber. Ownership of land in what would become the District was contested for many years, with competing land records. By the late 18th century, the owners of land tracts in the District would agree to part with these parcels in the greater interest of establishing the capital city.
Preindustrial Origins of a Neighborhood (1791-1900)
“The Tiber cutting through east of North Capitol Street was a handicap to improvements for many years.”
—Pictures of the City of Washington in the Past
In 1791, President George Washington commissioned Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French-American military engineer, to plan Washington, D.C. The L’Enfant Plan laid out a grand vision for the new capital city, with defined boundaries, a grid of north-south and east-west streets, and primary avenues radiating from the White House and Capitol buildings. Located at the western edge of the Northeast quadrant, what is NoMa today continues to boast unparalleled and undisturbed views of the Capitol dome via the viewshed of North Capitol Street. The L’Enfant Plan also laid out a canal system — the Washington Canal — from the Capitol to the Potomac River, leveraging the Tiber Creek and further impacting the development patterns of the NoMa area through the mid-19th century.
During this time, according to local newspapers, parts of this area of the District were “unfit for human habitation.” The Tiber Creek was to blame, at least in part, subjecting Irish, Greek, and other immigrant residents of “Swampoodle” to swampy, puddle-prone conditions due to constant flooding. This community was notorious, and newspapers often reported on rowdy incidents along the local alleyways. On one occasion, a judge told the court that the case before them was of “an ordinary ‘Swampoodle’ stone battle.”
Largely undeveloped, portions of what is known as NoMa today served as hunting and grazing grounds until the establishment of the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) in 1860 and the Tiber Creek’s burial beneath city streets in 1879. The first sign of development activity in NoMa began with the construction of a private printing factory, built by Cornelius Wendel in 1856 on North Capitol and H streets NW. The U.S. government purchased Wendel’s factory to turn the site into the GPO, which began operations in 1861. Among its first historic printings was the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1863.
The construction of the GPO (now known as the Government Publishing Office) marked a period of private investments in education and community services. Ambrose Lynch donated land along North Capitol Street for the purpose of constructing St. Aloysius, the first Catholic church in the District, and St. Joseph’s Orphanage, which later became Gonzaga College High School. A mile to the northeast, Gallaudet University — originally called the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind — was founded in 1857 and authorized by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 to confer degrees. The campus was master planned by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in 1866 and is identified as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1873, Ellen Sherman, the wife of General Tecumseh Sherman, persuaded the Sisters of Notre Dame to establish an industrial school for girls at North Capitol and K streets NE.
Beyond the boundaries of the original capital city, but still part of the northern section of NoMa today, Eckington was the site of the estate of Joseph Gales Jr., former District mayor, from 1815 to 1860. Upon his death, his estate, Gales Woods, opened to the public and became a popular picnic area on Sundays for families into the 1870s. Colonel William Truesdell acquired the estate in 1887 with visions of creating a modern neighborhood with electricity and expanded transit options. Once the Tiber Creek was buried, Col. Truesdell established the Eckington and Soldiers Home Railway, the city’s first electric streetcar line. That same year, he sold the remaining 17 acres of the Eckington tract to the B&O Railroad Co., which constructed a freight yard, depot, and the Metropolitan Branch rail line.
This part of the area’s history is marked by the influence of a temperamental creek and a burgeoning identity created by the immigrant communities that settled here. During this time, the area received investments through public works projects and investments in transportation, industry, and education.
Industrial Growth & Decline (1901-1987)
“With the construction of Union Station … and the extension of the railroad tracks north of the station, warehouse construction began to replace many of the vacant lots and residential blocks clustered near the tracks.”
—Traceries D.C. Warehouse Survey
At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. government reassessed the Washington Canal and repositioned the city for growth. The McMillan Plan, published in 1902, recommended the physical union of the District’s competing rail companies under one roof. Designed by renowned architect Daniel Burnham, Union Station opened in 1907. The construction of this massive train station and its numerous tracks completely altered the physical and cultural environment in the area that is NoMa today. The central role of rail transportation was the guiding force of investment in the neighborhood for the next half-century.
Capitalizing on rail accessibility, investors and businesses eliminated houses and developed warehouses and industrial spaces to maintain and supply operations across the District and beyond. Industries such as retail, printing, meatpacking, coal, and ice production dotted NoMa’s landscape. Premier retailers such as Woodward & Lothrop, Palais Royal, and Peoples Drug Store utilized warehouse spaces to store domestic goods. Advances in communication technology induced the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. to build the largest structure of its day on North Capital Street at L Street NE for the purpose of extending phone service in and around the D.C. area. Ice factories were prominent in the area north of Union Station, including Chapin-Sacks/Southern Dairies at First and M streets NE, and Griffith Consumers Co. at First and L streets NE.
The construction of Uline Arena at 3rd and M streets NE, by the man who owned the ice-production plant next door, created a cultural staple for District residents. It provided a home for the city’s first professional hockey and basketball teams, as well as other sporting events, concerts, and gatherings, and in 1948 became one of the city’s first fully desegregated venues. Alexandria, Va.–born Earl Lloyd played for the Washington Capitols basketball team there and made history as the first black man to play in an NBA game, in 1950. And in 1964, the arena — renamed the Washington Coliseum — would host the Beatles’ first North American concert.
The rapid investment in rail transit enabled the growth of the industrial sector in NoMa, built out over the course of 50 years. By 1956, however, the U.S. government was committed to building out the interstate highway system. The largest public works project in history, the government’s investment in automobile infrastructure led to a steep decline in rail use across the nation.
In parts of the District, the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. ushered in an era of disinvestment and violence, to the detriment of NoMa’s commercial and community growth. Beginning in the 1970s, drug use escalated in impoverished neighborhoods within and around NoMa’s boundaries. In the 1980s, Hanover Place NW was an open-air drug market colloquially known as “the Garden of Eden of the drug scene.” Infamous kingpins Rayful Edmond III and Tony Lewis Sr., along with the P Street and R Street crews, maintained a strong presence in the area and contributed to the crack epidemic of the 1980s. NoMa was caught between several major drug markets whose conflicts played out on neighborhood streets, changing the course of well-meaning ventures such as Sursum Corda, a low-income co-op development built in the late 1960s. During that time, addiction and death were normalized to the young men and women living in these environments.
Activist groups such as the Orange Hats and the Near Northeast Citizens Against Crime and Drugs Civic Association boldly defended their communities against the onslaught of drug crime and violence, and a resilient sense of community motivated local residents to take action. Loree Harris Murray, president of the civic association, urged resident Sylvia Pinkney to get involved and carry on the legacy of activism. Pinkney would go on to become an elected member of the Eckington Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
The decline in rail use, coupled with the economic impacts of drug-related violence, changed the area’s landscape. Industries and people moved to the suburbs. The city struggled to overcome widespread poverty and rampant drug crime and violence. Recovery was slow as Union Station’s prominence and use shifted and local companies were purchased or moved. Once industrious, what is NoMa today was largely abandoned.
Rebirth of a Neighborhood (1988-Present)
“Develop ‘NoMa’ — North of Massachusetts Avenue — as a new mixed-use information technology, communications media, arts and entertainment, and housing district in the area from the new Washington Convention Center east to Union Station and north to New York Avenue.”
—The Economic Resurgence of Washington, DC: Citizens Plan for Prosperity in the 21st Century
Coordinated reinvestment gave rise to a new aesthetic in NoMa, combining industrial history and contemporary amenities. Just as the construction of Union Station changed the course of early 20th century development in the neighborhood, its renovation, completed in 1988, preserved the building’s original purpose while integrating new, strategic mixed uses. It would be a decade before a plan to revitalize the distressed neighborhood that is NoMa today arrived, but in the meantime, business leaders and advocates were laying the groundwork for the collaborative model that is characteristic of NoMa.
In 1998, The Economic Resurgence of Washington, DC: Citizens Plan for Prosperity in the 21st Century recognized the area “North of Massachusetts Ave” (NoMa) as a place ripe for high-density redevelopment and reinvestment. In its list of 40 recommendations, Action 29 proposed the construction of a Red Line Metro station near New York Avenue. Opened in 2004 as the system’s first infill station, it filled a 2-mile gap between stops at Union Station and Rhode Island Avenue. This public-transportation development ultimately set the stage for the NoMa we see today.
Building on the momentum, local property owners worked together to establish the NoMa Business Improvement District (NoMa BID) in 2007 to foster economic development as well as create and activate public spaces. BID members were inspired by the character and history of the area, resulting in projects such as the Loree Grand, whose name commemorates a beloved community activist and neighbor Loree Harris Murray. Recognized for their impact on the early development of NoMa, a number of buildings — Uline Arena, Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co., National Capital Press Co., Judd & Detweiler Printing, and the Woodward & Lothrop Service Warehouse — received historic designations, enabling developers to combine historical character and modern uses.
Established in 2012, the nonprofit NoMa Parks Foundation has worked to bring a network of parks and great public spaces to the neighborhood. In 2018 it opened Swampoodle Park, a new city-owned property named for the 18th century immigrant enclave that was located nearby. Two “art parks” — dynamic light installations in the underpasses on L and M streets NE — provide beautiful illumination and delight in formerly uninviting spaces. As the blocks between North Capitol and First streets NE south of New York Avenue build out, the NoMa Meander will offer greater connectivity for pedestrians. And the 2.5-acre Alethia Tanner Park, named for a D.C. slave who purchased her freedom and built the first school for black children in the District, will serve as the neighborhood’s “back yard” when it opens in early 2020.
These days, redevelopment in NoMa is marked by innovation, sustainability, and the recognition of the rich history that has made the neighborhood what it is today.
Image Sources & Credits
BEFORE THE CAPITAL CITY
1. Captain John Smith map. U.S. National Park Service.
2. Auriel Bessemer, Early Indian Life on Analostan Island. Used with permission of the U.S. Postal Service,
3. Map with highligted Tiber Creek. Used with permission of the Park View blog.
4. Cadastral map showing landholdings in central Washington with owners’ names. Facsim. of 1874 map compiled by E.F.M. Faehtz and F.W. Pratt; published by the Capitol Centennial Committee, 1893. U.S. Library of Congress.
PREINDUSTRIAL ORIGINS OF A NEIGHBORHOOD
1. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States: projected agreeable to the direction of the President of the United States, in pursuance of an act of Congress passed the sixteenth day of July, MDCCXC, establishing the permanent seat on the bank of Potowmac. U.S. Library of Congress.
2. Augustus Kollner, Tiber Creek north-east of the Capitol. U.S. Library of Congress.
3. Drawing of Cornelius Wendell printing building. U.S. Government Publishing Office.
4. Houses on present site of the Government Printing Office, 1897. U.S. Library of Congress (see also).
5. Baist’s real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, District of Columbia, v. 4, 1921. U.S. Library of Congress.
6. St. Aloysius Church. U.S. Library of Congress.
7. Emancipation Proclamation, 1863. U.S. Library of Congress.
8. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1906. U.S. Library of Congress.
9. Swampoodle prior to 1876, showing the section between North Capitol and First streets NE. Through the arch and under the bridge flowed the Tiber. The houses face H street. Evening Star, February 06, 1938, Page C-5. U.S. Library of Congress.
10. K Street Convent, 1923. Used with permission of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Virtual Archives.
11. Image showing construction of a new combined sewer, 1881. Used with permission of Sewer History.
12. Washington Nationals baseball team, circa 1886-89. Architect of the Capitol.
13. Map of George Truesdell’s addition to the city of Washington, being a subdivision of a tract of land known as Eckington, which tract is a part of the original tract called Youngsborough, 1887. U.S. Library of Congress.
14. Opening day of the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway, October 1888. Used with permission of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
15. Grove Lime & Coal truck, ca. 1910. U.S. Library of Congress.
INDUSTRIAL GROWTH & DECLINE
1. Panoramic view of the construction site and equipment during the building of Union Station, Washington, D.C. U.S. Library of Congress.
2. Columbia Planograph Co. U.S. Library of Congress.
3. Houses in First Street Northeast Which Are to Make Way for the First Street Tunnel. Washington Times, August 22, 1904, Page 4. U.S. Library of Congress.
4. Chapin-Sacks Building Remarkable Structure. Washington Times, February 25, 1906, Real Estate News of Washington, Page 3. U.S. Library of Congress.
5. New Warehouse, Model of Kind. Washington Times, November 24, 1907, Sports-Real Estate, Page 9. U.S. Library of Congress.
6. Union Station. U.S. Library of Congress.
7. New Wholesale Market District, Looking South. Washington Herald, November 10, 1907, Page 7. U.S. Library of Congress.
8. Eckington Yards, June 4, 1923. U.S. Library of Congress.
9. Judd & Detweiler. U.S. Library of Congress.
10. City Post Office. U.S. Library of Congress.
11. North Cap. Tire Shop. U.S. Library of Congress.
12. Texas Co., 3rd & Fla. Ave. N.E. U.S. Library of Congress.
13. Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company Warehouse. U.S. Library of Congress.
14. Exterior of Peoples Drug Store warehouse. U.S. Library of Congress.
15. Our New Warehouse and Delivery Station. Evening Star, August 2, 1931, Page B-8. U.S. Library of Congress.
16. Exterior of National Capitol Press Building. U.S. Library of Congress.
17. Architect Sketch of Uline Ice Arena. Used with permission of D.C. Preservation.
18. Uline Ice Arena. Used with permission of D.C. Public Library.
19. Alley dwellings between Pierce Street, L Street, First Street and North Capitol Street. U.S. Library of Congress.
20. Earl Lloyd Washington Capitols promotional photo. Original source unknown.
21. Marion S. Trikosko, The Beatles British Rock and Roll group putting on their show at the Wash. Coliseum. U.S. Library of Congress.
22. Thomas J. O’Halloran, Reconstruction of the Main Hall of Union Station into the National Visitors Center, showing excavation of a recessed pit. U.S. Library of Congress.
23. Carol M. Highsmith, Restoration work on Union Station. U.S. Library of Congress.
24. Loree Harris Murray. Used with permission of the family.
REBIRTH OF A NEIGHBORHOOD
1. Carol M. Highsmith, Opening day ceremony after the 1980s restoration of Union Station. U.S. Library of Congress.
2. Mile 0 of the MBT on 2nd St NE. Wikimedia Commons.
3. H.R. 1963, 105th Congress. U.S. Government Publishing Office.
4. XM Radio, corner of Florida Avenue and Eckington Place NE. NoMa BID photo.
5. New York Avenue Metro Station Opening. NoMa BID photo.
6. One NoMa Station. NoMa BID photo.
7. Loree Grand Apartments. NoMa BID photo.
8. NPR headquarters. NoMa BID photo.
9. Uline Arena. NoMa BID photo.
10. Rain installation, M Street NE underpass. NoMa BID photo.
11. Swampoodle Park. NoMa BID photo.