A Place to Lay Their Heads: Housing in Early Washington City

<a href="https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/author/merry-ellen-scofield/" target="_self">Merry Ellen Scofield</a> | March 08, 2024

<em>George Town and Federal City, or City of Washington</em>. An 1801 view of Georgetown and Analostan (or Mason’s) Island.

George Town and Federal City, or City of Washington. An 1801 view of Georgetown and Analostan (or Mason’s) Island. The new capital city of Washington is on the second hill in the distance. Aquatint engraving by T. Cartwright after George Beck. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In 1789, as Congress debated the location of a permanent national capital, the New York Gazette of the United States mocked in verse the rumors that it had chosen a site along the Potomac River. Why select a seaport metropolis like Philadelphia or New York, with its art, its culture, and its commerce, when the federal government could instead repair to the woods? There,

Where nature never fails to please,
In hills and dales, and shrubs and trees;
. . .
What Laws and Statutes shall be made!
To help the basket making trade;
To regulate the country roads,
And clear the neighborhood of toads.[1]

As it happened, the Gazette expressed far too much optimism. When the seat of government officially moved to the banks of the Potomac in late 1800, those who traveled with it found little trade whatsoever, far too few roads to regulate, and enough empty lots to comfortably accommodate both toads and people. Despite the growth stimulated by the creation of the District of Columbia and the pockets of genteel families already within its boundaries, only 3,210 persons called the new capital city their home (compared to Philadelphia’s 41,220 people). “You may look in almost any direction,” wrote Oliver Wolcott in 1800, “over an extent of ground nearly as large as the city of New York, without seeing a fence or any object except brick kilns and temporary huts for labourers.” [2]

A watercolor view of Washington, D.C., circa 1799 to 1801.

Nicholas King, View of Blodgett’s Hotel in Washington, D.C., showing distant view of the President’s House (left of center) and on the far right, the patent office. (Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.)

Members of the second session of the Sixth Congress, the first to conduct business in the new federal city, began filtering into Washington in early November. Immediately it became clear that finding a place to lay their heads would not be easy in this village capital. For most of the 138 incoming congressmen, the choice would be to pack themselves into the eight available boardinghouses near the Hill. Georgetown was three miles away over notoriously bad roads and Alexandria, seven miles downriver across a broad expanse of the Potomac, was not an option.[3]

Few brought their wives. John Cotton Smith spoke for many when he wrote that, given “the inchoate condition of Washington” and the “improbability of procuring even comfortable accommodations,” all thoughts of his wife accompanying him to Washington had been abandoned. Albert Gallatin, lodging at Conrad and McMunn’s boardinghouse, complained to his wife in New York that he was obliged to share his bedroom with another congressman and look upon the same male faces day in and day out. “At table . . . we are from twenty-four to thirty, and, was it not for the presence of Mrs. Bailey and Mrs. Brown, would look like a refectory of monks.” [4]

The lodgings quickly evolved into fraternal messes—distinct societies of public officials bonded by close living quarters, the same dining table, and a masculine atmosphere that allowed for informal manners and open discussion. As Gallatin observed, “you may suppose that being all thrown together in a few boarding-houses, without hardly any other society than ourselves, we are not likely to be either very moderate politicians or to think of anything but politics.” As Washington grew in size, each mess tended to lodge men of the same political party and from the same geographic area, but during the capital’s earliest years, with fewer congressmen and fewer boardinghouses, the divisions were mainly by party only. James Sterling Young showed in The Washington Community 1800-1828 that constant exposure to their messmates influenced votes in Congress and that the men often voted in blocs.[5]

A limited number of congressmen found more private living quarters. Some stayed in Georgetown. Pontius Stelle offered rooms at his new tavern just south of the Capitol, as did a few other public houses in the city, but these businesses struggled to keep guests. The rent was high, and they could not offer the comradery of a mess.[6]

Left: manuscript image of the agreement between Thomas Jefferson and Conrad & McMunn’s boarding house in Washington. (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society) Right: the published version of the document in the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 32:260.


Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert resided comfortably in his stately Georgetown home, but the rest of John Adams’s cabinet made do with boardinghouses during their months in Washington City. That included Vice President Jefferson, who secured a bedroom and private parlor at Conrad and McMunn’s (and who, unlike fellow lodger Gallatin, refrained from filling letters home with snide comments about his circumstances).[7] In 1801, President Jefferson’s own incoming cabinet would seek different arrangements. So did other high-ranking appointees to his administration and men like newspaper editor Samuel Harrison Smith, who all planned for long careers independent of changing presidents. They brought their families and set up housekeeping in homes near the public buildings.

Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe later described even the city’s largest houses as “3 Stories high with 2 Rooms a passage and staircase on each floor, exactly on the plan of the h[ouse]s of the 3d Rate in London.” British minister Anthony Merry and his wife, Elizabeth Death Merry, alleged that they were forced to secure “two small houses” to accommodate their needs. Even then, Merry complained that they were “mere shells . . . with bare walls and without fixtures of any kind, even without a pump or well.” Those not comparing their residences to ones available in London or Philadelphia found their homes comfortable enough to service the demands of a republican statesman. Many were not row houses, but freestanding homes, mostly new constructions in the Federal style: brick with third-story dormer windows and a flat, porchless front facade. The James and Dolley Madison house on F Street sported a cupola. Wealthy planter John Tayloe III and his wife built a home on New York Avenue in the shape of an octagon. [8]

Le coin de F. Street Washington vis-à-vis nôtre maison été de 1817, a depiction in watercolor of the corner of F Street and 15th NW in 1817 by Anne Marguerite Hyde de Neuville. The building to the center right is Rhode’s Tavern, which housed the Metropolitan Bank. On the far left is the U.S. Treasury Building. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

Because of the housing situation in Washington and its isolated location, the political elite of the city formed a society unique among other national capitals, one in which material wealth and refinement took a backseat. It was accepted that those Washington families with the appropriate space would provide the venues for dinners and larger gatherings. Those in boardinghouses would provide their company and a parlor for congregating.

Washington grew rapidly. By 1820, the housing shortage had somewhat abated. Two thousand homes lined its streets. More women attended the congressional sessions with their husbands, who now had a choice of over two dozen boardinghouses. But it was still a village capital. While the city’s population had risen to 13,117, that was a fraction of the 63,802 people inhabiting Philadelphia. The roads were still treacherous. Work huts still peppered the landscape. And as traveler William Faux pointed out that same year, the woodland capital still had ample room to accommodate the toads.[9]


[1] Unknown author, “The Rural Retreat,” New York Gazette of the United States, 12 Sep. 1789.

[2] “Table 1: Population of the District of Columbia,” Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington: Village and Capital, 1800-1878 (Princeton, 1962), 21; Philadelphia in 1824; or, a Brief Account of the Various Institutions and Public Objects in This Metropolis: Being a Complete Guide for Strangers and an Useful Compendium for the Inhabitants (Philadelphia, 1824), 29; Oliver Wolcott to Mrs. Wolcott [Elizabeth Stoughton Wolcott], 4 July 1800, in George Gibbs, Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams: Edited from the Papers of Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury, 2 vols. (New York, 1846), 2:377-8. Wife’s name, same, 1:17.

[3] The National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, 17 Nov. 1800; Albert Gallatin to his wife [Hannah Nicholson Gallatin], 15 Jan. 1801, in Henry Adams, The Life of Albert Gallatin (Philadelphia, 1880), 253; Carey Henry Charles and Isaac Lea, The Geography, History, and Statistics, of America and the West Indies (Philadelphia, 1823), 194.

[4] John Cotton Smith and William W. Andrews, The Correspondence and Miscellanies of the Hon. John Cotton Smith (New York, 1847), 198; Albert Gallatin to his wife [Hannah Nicholson Gallatin], 15 Jan. 1801, quoted in Henry Adams, The Life of Albert Gallatin (Philadelphia, 1880), 253.

[5] Albert Gallatin to his wife [Hannah Nicholson Gallatin], 22 Jan. 1801, quoted in Henry Adams, The Life of Albert Gallatin, 255; James Sterling Young, The Washington Community 1800-1828 (New York, 1966).

[6] Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan, A History of the National Capital: From Its Foundation Through the Period of the Adoption of the Organic Act, 2 vols. (New York, 1914), 1:518-9; James A. Bayard to Andrew Bayard, Jan. 8, 1801, James A. Bayard and Elizabeth Donnan, Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1913 in Two Volumes: Vol. II, Papers of James A. Bayard, 1796-1815 (Washington, D.C., 1915), 119.

[7] Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 32:260n. See document on Founders Online.

[8] Benjamin Henry Latrobe to John Philip Morier, 27 Oct. 1810, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Vol. 2: 1805-1810, ed. John C. Van Horne (New Haven, Conn., 1986), 922; Anthony Merry to George Hammond, 7 Dec. 1803, quoted in Henry Adams, History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1986), 547; Anne-Marguerite Hyde de Neuville, Le coin de F. street Washington vis-à-vis nôtre maison eté de 1817 (The Corner of F Street 1817), watercolor in the collection of the New York Public Library; Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, Vol. 2:45; Presidential Series, Vol. 1:290n.

[9] Harvey W. Ed Crew, William Bensing Webb, and John Wooldridge, Centennial History of the City of Washington D.C. with Full Outline of the Natural Advantages, Accounts of the Indian Tribes, Selection of the Site, Founding of the City, . . . to the Present Time (Dayton, Ohio, 1892), 186; Young, The Washington Community 1800-1828, 199; “Table 1: Population of the District of Columbia,” Green, Washington: Village and Capital, 21; Philadelphia in 1824, 29; W. Faux, Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to the United States Principally Undertaken to Ascertain, by Positive Evidence, the Condition and Probable Prospects of British Emigrants; Including Accounts of Mr. Birkbeck’s Settlement in the Illinois (London, 1823), 99-100, 438.

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