Distance: 50 feet.
Top speed: roughly 0.3 mph.
Elapsed time: about 30 minutes, with starts and stops.
The wheels of history turned slowly Thursday, as they carried a 47-ton piece of Washington’s past to a new spot and a prominent new status on the Mall.
A work crew using high-tech moving equipment, inched the 1832 lock keeper’s house at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue away from the spot where it sat, tattered and forlorn, for 100 years.
Boarded up and forgotten for the past 40 years, the simple stone building once sat at a bustling hub of Washington’s commerce — the junction of two shipping canals and a huge wharf on the Potomac River.
It served as the home of the keeper of the canal lock, which raised and lowered canal boats as they traveled between the District and Cumberland, Md.
The operation Thursday moved the house to a spot off the intersection that will become a new welcome center and gateway to the Mall, according to the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall, which funded the $11 million project.
Workers prepare the lock keeper’s house for its move to a new home on the Mall. Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post
The house, just north of the National World War II Memorial, is the oldest existing building on the Mall, according to the National Park Service. But since its heyday, it has been used by squatters, as a police headquarters, for restrooms, and for storage.
Its move — five years in the making — is the first private construction project on the Mall, said John E. “Chip” Akridge III, founder of the trust.
And it’s focused on a rare Washington artifact.
“It’s the only witness left to that period in time, and commerce of that time,” said Teresa Durkin, a landscape architect and executive vice president for the trust.
“It persists,” she said. “It’s still here, for some reason. . . . Every hundred years, it’s being moved. But it’s still here. We can’t let it go.”
The house was last moved in 1915, again only a few dozen feet, from its original 1832 location.
“We’re really pleased to give it a more graceful and beautiful place on the Mall and open it up to the public,” Durkin said.
Under gray skies and flights of passing geese, the house was borne on a grid of yellow steel girders atop four sets of eight-wheel dollies that looked like the landing gear of an airliner.
The house, which had been raised from the ground, was encased in four vertical girders at its corners and bound with chains. The moving dollies were powered by a 173-hp diesel engine, said Jamin Buckingham, project manager for Wolfe House and Building Movers.
Stone marking the Washington City Canal is seen near the lock keeper’s house. Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post
The move began at 8:26, as morning rush-hour traffic rumbled through the intersection a few blocks from the White House and the Washington Monument. Horns honked, an ambulance screamed by and jets roared overhead.
The dollies’ 32 tires turned at glacial speed as they eased the structure back from the southwest corner of the intersection.
It was a world much removed from the time of the lock house — a decade before the start of construction on the Washington Monument, before Constitution Avenue, before the western section of the Mall existed.
“At that time, 1832, this was still somewhat rural,” Durkin said. “There were cows walking around. . . . There was a very long wharf that extended here down to the [Potomac] river.”
The house stood at the junction of two canals. The shallow Washington City Canal ran mostly where east-west Constitution Avenue is today, through the city toward the Capitol, and thence to the Anacostia River.
At 17th Street, the Washington canal joined a section of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which extended northwest more than 180 miles to Cumberland. Canal boats, pulled along a tow path by draft animals, carried cargo and passengers to and from the mountains of the interior.
But the canal era was quickly eclipsed by newer transportation methods.
“As soon as the railroad came through, they all became obsolete,” Durkin said.
The city canal, plagued by river tides and other problems, was soon abandoned and befouled.
“It is the grand receptacle of nearly all the filth of this city,” Commissioner of Public Buildings Benjamin B. French wrote in 1862, according to the blog Civil War Washington D.C.
“The waste from all the public buildings, the hotels, and very many private residences is drained into it,” he wrote to Congress. “Unless something be done . . . the good citizens of Washington must during some hot seasons, find themselves visited by a pestilence!”
Rendering showing the lock keeper’s house in the new location at Constitution Gardens. Courtesy of Nationalmall.org
Workers began to fill the canal in the 1870s, according to the Park Service.
The connecting stretch of the C&O canal was also abandoned, and disappeared with the westward extension of the Mall.
The shoreline of the Potomac was pushed south by new fill. The Washington Monument was completed. And a new road, at first called B Street, and later Constitution Avenue, was built over the canals.
Museums and new memorials sprouted nearby. Parades and funerals passed by. Occupants of the White House came and went.
The lock keeper’s house kept watch.
Shortly before 9 a.m. Thursday, it was positioned over its new foundation — 185 years after it first took its place at the site.
This spring, the trust hopes to reopen the old house — refurbished and with interior history displays — on a new plaza.
“It’s like a dream, to me, ” Durkin said. “I’ve been waiting so long to see the house moved. Every time I would come over here, it would look sadder and sadder and sadder. Now, it’s finally moved.
“I’m just so happy that we can celebrate this house and the fact that it endured, and it has stories to tell us,” she said.