What is an Alley Dwelling?

The definition of an Alley Dwelling and its context for this project.

Basic Definition

The first step for this project is to understand what alley dwellings are and how they would fit into the development of Washington, DC. The dwelling is the housing while the alley as defined by the "Alley Dwelling Act of 1934" as

...any court, thoroughfare, or passage, private or public, thirty feet or more in width, that does not open directly with a width of at least thirty feet upon a public street that is at least forty feet wide from building line to building line.

How Did they Grow

The alley communities were not a part of L'Enfant's original plan for the city. His design, however did lead to their development. For one, the blocks within the city were divided into large plots of land, such as the lot outlined in the first map. However, if you look at the image of the 1903 map of the same block, the lot of land has been divided up into smaller lots.

Portion of Square 28, 1872 Map of Washington DC by A. Petsen and J. Enthofer (edited by author) Portion of Square 28, 1903 Baist's Real Estate Atlas (edited by author)

Another reason for the development of these alley communities was the great influx of blacks after the Civil War. Census data from 1860 and 1870, shows that the black population in DC jumped from being 19% of its population to being 32% of the population. A report by the Housing Committee Industrial Union Council states "the tremendous increase in population, especially of Negroes, ex-slaves, etc., created a real housing shortage, which was met in part by the the provisions of dwellings built on these alleys."

The Physical Shape of the Alleys

An alley community is formed by the shape of its surrounding block and its inner passageways. In DC, alley ways come in a variety of shapes. Two examples of different typologies are below. The inner passageway is highlighted in red to give a greater sense of the inner court. Click on either image for a larger image to appear.

Logan's Place, "Report of the Committee on the Improvement of Existing Houses and Elimination of Insanitary and Alley Houses" (edited by author) Alley within Square 454, 1887 Hopkins Real Estate Atlas (edited by author)

Back to Top