Foggy Bottom's origins can be traced to 1765, when Jacob Funk, a German immigrant, purchased a 130-acre tract in the area and laid out the town of Hamburgh. Also known as Funkstown, it was one of several ports located along the Potomac River, of which Georgetown and Alexandria were the most successful. Little came of the Hamburgh settlement; however, its distinctive German flavor lingered into the early twentieth century in churches, housing, and industry.
During the nineteenth century, topography influenced Foggy Bottom's urban form considerably: 23rd Street separated the high ground of an affluent, residential area inhabited by the military, diplomatic, and scientific elite from low ground and the modest dwellings of workers who labored in nearby glassworks, breweries, gasworks, and a cement company. Here, the entrance to the polluted and ill-constructed City Canal and the marshy lands along the Potomac River gave rise to the name “Foggy Bottom,” where it was said that the incessant, nightly croaking of frogs furnished material for ghost stories.
After the reclamation of the Potomac flats and the filling of the canal during the 1870s, large federal, semipublic, institutional, and association buildings were built in Foggy Bottom. The convenient location, south of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Georgetown, made Foggy Bottom an appropriate site for such buildings. The march of monumental buildings can be followed starting at 17th Street and New York Avenue, continuing south along 17th Street, then west along Constitution Avenue, and along the riverfront ending at Rock Creek Park. Federal government buildings, located in an area referred to as the Northwest Rectangle in order to balance the Federal Triangle on the other side of the Ellipse, were sited on the eastern end of Foggy Bottom. The complexes for the Interior and State departments are the largest of these structures.
Another trailblazer was George Washington University, which occupied buildings at 20th and G streets NW in 1912 and later acquired major landholdings in the vicinity. After World War II, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund built large structures here for their expanding staffs.
Despite the influx of such organizational buildings in the 1940s and 1950s, many planners perceived decay and designated the area for a vast urban renewal effort. By the time the renewal plan was implemented in the form of Columbia Plaza in the 1960s, the character of the area had changed: Foggy Bottom had become fashionable. The construction of the luxurious Watergate complex of apartments, offices, hotel, and shopping center epitomized the new affluence.
Remnants of the nineteenth century survive in a few churches and blocks of modest town houses in the small Foggy Bottom Historic District and in the old Naval Observatory. Some of the city's best-known buildings can also be found here, among them the Kennedy Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the building that houses the Organization of American States.
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