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Excerpts from "The Washington Brewery at Navy Yard," a Call to Honor DC Brewing History

Garrett Peck, local historian and author, has a new book coming out in March titled Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. 

Before that book hits shelves, however, Peck is releasing a standalone piece titled "The Washington Brewery at Navy Yard," where Peck scours historical records to both learn about and determine, as near as possible, the exact location of the second home of the Washington Brewery (the City of Washington's first brewery). The work is replete with historical images, including maps and paintings, and is comprehensive in its placing of the Washington Brewery's second location in the Navy Yard neighborhood. In the piece, Peck calls for a historical marker on the approximate site of this brewery as well as for the developer of the site to engage in some excavation to see what remains of the brewery's foundation. Below we've highlighted some passages from the full work, which can be found in full here.

Brewing has been a fundamental part of the history and culture of Washington, D.C. Beer was a staple, and brewing made potentially dangerous water potable. Brewers were once the second-largest employer in the city after the federal government. Six major breweries in the Washington-area were closed by Prohibition; only one of them successfully reopened, Christian Heurich, and that too closed for good in 1956. That brewery was demolished to make room for the Kennedy Center. Today, there are almost no architectural remains from DC’s brewing past. 
This is a closeup from George Cooke’s painting “City of Washington” from 1833. The Washington Brewery is the tall red brick building right in the center. 
Washington was long bereft of beer until it legalized brewpubs in 1991. Twenty years later, the city finally opened its first production brewery (DC Brau) since 1956, which was then followed by a slew of microbreweries. People are proudly drinking local beer again.
 
No brewery was more storied than the Washington Brewery, the first brewery in the city’s history. It was a name so popular that (so far) seven different companies have used it on six plots of land. Founded in 1796 by Dr. Cornelius Coningham, an English physician, the brewery first operated along the Potomac near Foggy Bottom. Around 1805, Coningham leased the Sugar House near Navy Yard and moved the brewery to that site. The Washington Brewery remained at Navy Yard until it closed in 1836. It was one of Washington’s first industrial sites.
 
What follows in this document is a short history of the Washington Brewery at Navy Yard and a description of its location. The brewery once stood near Yards Park, adjacent to a DC Water facility. It is our hope that the District of Columbia will emplace a historic marker at Yards Park or in the proposed Forest City development at The Yards to mark the brewery’s location and acknowledge its contribution to DC’s history, as well as to support an archaeological dig at the site before construction begins on the proposed new development.
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Locating the Washington Brewery
Can we pinpoint the location of the Washington Brewery? Yes. Thanks to George Cooke’s 1833 painting City of Washington and the brewery advertisements in the National Intelligencer, we know several crucial facts about its location from site descriptions:
  1. The Washington Brewery was located at the foot of New Jersey Avenue, SE, on the west side of the street.
  2. The brewery stood near the Eastern Branch (now the Anacostia River) in the tall brick Sugar House, a former sugar refinery, which was built with a wharf that extended into the river.
  3. The malt house stood on a corner lot adjacent lot to the brewery (probably to the east, or possibly to the north). It had a 120-foot face along the Washington Canal and 100 feet along the street, probably N Street SE, but it could have been N Place, SE, the half-street to the south.
 
Knowing these three facts, we can overlay this information onto historic maps. There is only one block that meets all three requirements: Square 744. At the time the Sugar House was built, about three-quarters of the square existed; the southeast corner and Square 745 (744SS) to the south were both later infill projects that extended the shoreline into the Anacostia River. Atop the mouth of the filled-in Washington Canal now stands a DC Water pumping station. Square 744 is now occupied by parking lot H/I and a DC Water maintenance facility to the south. The Washington Brewery once stood in this block between the DC Water building and Nationals Park.

Interested in reading or seeing more? Be sure to check out the full work here!

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