Updated: Apr 4, 2022
Navy Yard is one of those neighborhoods in DC that is essentially 90% unrecognizable from even just ten years ago. The modern multi-story glass buildings that now adorn almost every block between M St SE and the Navy Yard Waterfront started springing up as soon as the National Stadium was completed in 2008. For a few decades before that, the neighborhood had been more known for its red light district and rave clubs (RIP Nation). Now you can find a Vida Fitness (a very upscale health club), several high-end restaurants, and the gleaming complex for the Department of Transportation. Not far off is the beautiful renovated Frederick Douglass Bridge.
Originally one of DC's most bustling residential districts, the Navy Yard itself is also the longest continuously running Federal facilities in the country. When it was in at its peak from the Civil War through WWII, the Yards offered plenty of jobs. The neighborhood was a mix of commercial and residential buildings, though they were much smaller in scale then what you see today. However, it degraded after WWII ended and the 395 was built right through, essentially cutting it off from the rest of the city. The buzz has since returned following the building of the Stadium, but only a few buildings remain that hold the memory of Navy Yard's early character.
I was driving through the neighborhood the other day and I nearly went off the road when I spotted.....a large blue and white castle. Just a couple of blocks below the 395 highway, there it was:
What was THIS?? This almost-eyesore-but-not-quite building had an air of mystery, almost Disneyland-ish with its medieval-looking towers and impression of crenelations. HOW HAD I NOT SEEN THIS BEFORE?!? Admittedly, I have only in the past couple of years become more acquainted with the neighborhood, and there is clearly much more I need to learn. So I decided to start with this odd building.
So, what is it? Well back in the day, DC used to have a streetcar system with several lines. The Washington and Georgetown Line ran all the way from Georgetown (you can still see the tracks on P and O Street), down Pennsylvania Avenue, around the Capitol building, and then south to the Navy Yard (the red line in the 1888 map below).
For black and white laborers living in what was in the 19th century a very labor-class-populated Georgetown, the streetcar was a lifeline to a critical source of work. It turns out that the castle was the Washington & Georgetown Railroad Car House. It was built in 1891 by Kansas City architect Walter C. Roott, in a "Romanesque Revival Style" (aka, Disney-land style). This was the terminus for the line, before the cars turned around and headed back in the other direction. The streetcar system fell out of use with the rise of the automobile and as the city's bus system became the dominant form of mass transit (and would be until the Washington Metro system was built). The system was dismantled over the early 1960s and the last streetcar ran on January 28th 1962. The building was used as a bus station even well before the streetcar system was ended.
The building was added to the list of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on November 14, 2006. Currently, the building seems to be empty. It was bought by the National Community Church in 2014, and has been used as a charter school. According to an Urban Turf Article from 2018, the church had plans to develop it into an auditorium for church services and childcare center. There did seem to be some construction afoot when I walked around the building. It was also dubbed the "Capital Turnaround" in honor of its former use as the end point in which the Street Cars would turn around and head back in the other direction. However, I do not know what the current status is and if, like so many other things, COVID-19 delayed or threw plans off. But I intend to keep my eye on this surprising find, and report on further developments as they occur!! Keep watching my Facebook page for updates!