Nine years ago when they bought the house it was an upstairs apartment above a windowless first floor next to a massive weed lot. But at 1,600 square feet it was a perfect home in their visionary eyes. “It had the patina of history,” said Anna.
They cut windows on the first floor and are “sort of on public view. People peek in as they stroll by. We don’t want to put up curtains. We’re connected to the city,” said Dan. “We’re part of the noise and flow,” Anna added.
Alleys are the unsung real estate of the city. EL Studio, an architectural firm studying them, says D.C. has 3,217 alleys that when unraveled total 246 miles.
An alley lot is a landlocked lot without street frontage. “There’s a tranquil old-world feel,” said Kim Williams, an architectural historian in D.C.’s Office of Planning.
The scale is small with low-rise structures. It’s quiet. There’s not a lot of vehicular or pedestrian traffic.
Green and red vines drape walls like lace wallpaper. Hand-painted advertisements on buildings — E.J. Adams & Co. Stables; Julius Viedt Jr. Groceries & Provisions; Hospital for Horses and Dogs JP. Tursa, V.M.D. — remind you that others were there long ago.
Old red-brick carriage houses are refurbished two-story homes surrounded by potted plants and colorful murals on walls, fences and garage doors.
But there are also parking lots, trash cans, random cars, delivery trucks and chain-link fences. “It takes a unique personality to live in an alley because it’s not a typical street,” said Richard Loosle-Ortega, co-founder and principal of Kube Architecture.
The city’s DNA
“Alleys are outside the boundaries of daily life so you can let your hair down. They’re also in the city’s DNA,” said Elizabeth Emerson, principal and co-founder of EL Studio.
Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for the city featured large blocks that developers subdivided into long, narrow residential lots with wealthy houses on the street-facing end and working-class settlements on the alleys. “They were kind of medieval in character in contrast to the grand streets and avenues of D.C,” said Thor Nelson, deputy chief of planning, design and construction with the D.C. Housing Authority and former urban designer with the D.C. Office of Planning. The alley’s close quarters created vibrant community life, but they were also places for stables, carriage houses and services no one wanted to see: animals, prostitutes and mechanical operations.
“Alleys were designed to hide the messiness of life,” said Williams. But property owners recognized they could make money by dividing the large lots and renting portions of them.
“The alley dwellings that were built on these lots attracted the city’s poorest residents . . . who couldn’t afford to live elsewhere,” she said.
But once inhabited they were neglected. Housing stock was poor without proper infrastructure and property owners didn’t maintain them. The alleys became unsanitary and overcrowded. Nevertheless, they were tightknit communities that families called home, Williams said.
Giorgio Furioso is a developer, real estate agent and artist who came to D.C. in the early 1980s looking for an affordable studio. He found suitable spaces in alley buildings but they weren’t legal to live or work in.
He lobbied D.C. to change zoning codes and after seven years, was successful in his effort. He bought several buildings, rented studios to artists and watched alleys turn into attractive sites for commerce and living.
Today he retains one building, next to the Kahoe’s home, originally designed as community stable for horses and carriages. His studio is there and he rents space to another artist.
Mark Lawrence, principal and co-founder of EL Studio, lives and works in a Northwest Washington alley.
“We don’t have a front yard, so when our children, Spencer, 6, and Nash, 4, play, we put up orange cones in the intersections. Our friends on the block do the same. We kind of take ownership of the alley. You see scooters and balls and bicycles,” he said.
When he and his wife, Cary, first walked down the alley, they thought it “a hidden world,” he recalled. “We looked at a property and I saw a home and office. It was an old brick structure, previously a horse stable [some of the original horse tie rings are visible inside] and an outdoor space, a weed patch actually, but that’s what sold my wife.”
They bought the property in 2011, rebuilt the stable into a home, adjoining office and grassy courtyard.
Nicholas Rubenstein and Jennifer Hsu live next door. Their house facade looks like a garage because that’s what it is.
The B. Frank Wright family, who owned a funeral home in Northwest Washington, built the original one-story garage in 1919, replacing a small two-story brick house built in 1882.
“We didn’t actually look for an alley house but knew we needed an unusually large space to accommodate our car collection,” said Rubenstein. “Our architect [Kube] envisioned maintaining the garage and building a two-story home behind it.”
The home is a full renovation of and addition of the original structure.
Kube created two facades. The garage facade sits on and opens to the alley street. The house facade sits inside the garage and is the rear glass wall of the garage connecting it to the two-story living space.
The kitchen on the back wall opens to the living and dining areas. Ceiling skylights cast natural light into the space. Rubenstein and Hsu can see their cars while sitting in the living room or working in their kitchen.
A second-floor loft — reached by a steel staircase — is designed as a library and opens to an outdoor deck that can’t be seen from front of the building.
“The alley is a chill place to live. Sometimes when I turn the corner late at night and it’s foggy I feel like I’ve gone back a hundred years,” said Hsu.
Seven blue-and-green rowhouses in Southeast Washington are an example of from-the-ground-up contemporary alley construction. The homes are on a vacant site previously occupied by seven worker homes from 1893. They were eventually torn down and the lots deemed unbuildable by D.C. Zoning, said Loosle-Ortega.
In 2016, zoning codes were changed to allow residential construction in more types of alley sites.
“An investor bought the corner lot, followed by four more and later the final two,” he said. “He contacted us to design homes.”
“We created one prototype emphasizing light, space and flexible living. All units have a rear parking space that doubles as a patio, a green roof that doubles as garden and deck, second-floor balcony, and solar tubes that add natural lighting,” Loosle-Ortega said.
Lamar Whitman and Dean Storer’s rowhouse on a tree-lined street in Northwest Washington isn’t typical alley living. Their alley runs behind the house parallel to the street.
“We wanted to connect the back of our house with the garage, create a new space for outdoor entertainment and liven up our small courtyard,” said Whitman.
In stepped Kube Architecture. They built a deck on top of the garage and surrounded it on three sides with screen walls composed of perforated aluminum within a steel frame. These provide privacy from the outside, but transparency and openness from inside.
“The steel and other metal elements represent a modern way of building within an alley setting,” said Janet Bloomberg, co-founder and principal of Kube.
“What’s interesting about D.C. alleys is they’re less formal than street-front architecture. The alley environment allowed us to introduce an industrial language into our design, which is atypical in the city because industrial buildings aren’t common,” she said.
“Historic alley buildings — stables, carriage houses, warehouses — have high ceilings, expansive spaces with columns and beams, and tremendous volume that allows for horizontal plus vertical design. Those buildings are a blank 3-D canvas for design,” he said. “They’re like the industrial lofts in SoHo and Tribeca in Lower Manhattan.”
Washington Alley Project
Nelson is a longtime advocate of alley transformation. “Now that technology has progressed and we no longer have horses and carriages or blacksmiths and stables, alleys can revive community life. We can think anew about the space as a place for children to play and neighbors to socialize,” he said.
EL Studio’s several-year Washington Alley Project is doing exactly that. Emerson and Lawrence study the city’s alley network as viable sites for new ways of urban living and using urban space. They recognize the success of pedestrian spaces hinges on the offer of amenities, not just the removal of cars and trash.
They’re working with residents, city officials and neighborhood leaders to find out how people would like to transform alleys. “People told us, ‘We want color, a playscape, softer surfaces, dedicated walkways and improved lighting,’ ” Emerson said.
EL Studio organizes Alley Hops, self-guided walks through alleys. Armed with maps and 3-D viewfinders, folks amble through designated alleys aided by wayfinding graphics on the walls and sidewalks. At designated spots, they look through the viewfinders and see the space where they’re standing in new and intriguing ways.
They see sites overlaid with images of design interventions, like a raised platform to sit on, a basketball court surrounded by colorful wall murals, decorative sculptures, a performance stage and seating banquette, and vegetation.
“When we think about alley living and engaging in our public space, we see a convergence of our values — housing affordability, equity and racial justice, resiliency, and how we can recover from covid,” said Anita Cozart, deputy director of community planning and design in the D.C. Office of Planning. “Now in the 21st century, we think alleys provide a range of different types of residential living.”
Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are an example. They are new homes behind existing homes — and are a vehicle for homeowners to build rental units along alleys without triggering the need for major infrastructure investments. Water and sewer services typically come through the main house into an ADU.
“That’s why ADUs are good for the city,” said Nelson. “They’re a place for affordable housing. One of the things that’s bedeviling about alleys reviving their role as equitable housing is that water and sewers aren’t there, so building alley houses is prohibitively expensive.”
EL Studio says if existing alley properties add alley housing there could be space for thousands of new residents.
Williams, the architectural historian, warns that the city needs to be cognizant of the gentrification of alleys.
“Over the course of several decades beginning in the late 19th century, White social reformers came along and began eradicating alley dwellings. The poor mostly Black population living there was displaced. That was the first gentrification,” she said. “Now we’re seeing the second gentrification with rich Whites, developers and individuals, coming in and rebuilding alley structures.”
Williams said alley revitalization needs to marry the two — refurbish existing housing stock and enable affordable living in new construction.
“Alley lots are attracting attention and getting snatched up by developers and private home buyers,” said Bloomberg of Kube. “By looking at them with a careful eye and thinking creatively about the possibilities of these unique sites, we can help improve our city now and for the future.”