DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood is noted for its astonishing charm and beauty. This block is typical for the area, unremarkable even — yet it offers some fundamental lessons on how to build a beautiful residential street.
The two-story Italianate rowhouses are identical, meaning they were put up all at once by a single developer. This means they are neatly aligned. The group at right, which probably came a decade or two later than their neighbors, follows the same cue. Together they form a true street wall.
The houses offer a variety of small, simple design cues. A sheet metal parapet cap generates several horizontal shadow lines, while below that, corbeled brick brackets add complexity and depth. Each window is sheltered by a generous arched hood. The windows are narrow but tall, and their pattern across the facades breaks the walls down into small, human-scaled elements. The doors fit neatly into this pattern.
Individual owners have added spice to the block with a variety of colors, no two the same. Additions and subtractions over the years have given each rowhouse its own personality. Security gates, lamps, house numbers, window replacements, door colors — all add a patina of age and character.
The house are compact. They take up only the room that’s necessary. There is no wasted space, no giant patches of lawn that nobody uses. The front yards are valuable in their smallness, and burst with plantings. Each one is a tiny little haven; together they make a gentle barrier between the sidewalk and the houses.
The street is sheltered by several mature shade trees. The importance of street trees to the beauty of a street cannot be overstated. It is hard for a street bereft of all nature to be beautiful.
The street itself is broad but not huge. Street parking on both sides provides some traffic calming. The parked cars help form a physical and psychological barrier between the sidewalk and the street, as well as reducing the size of the travel lanes — the only effective way to make cars voluntarily slow down.
It’s an altogether welcoming, charming space. And almost every bit of it could be built today, if we only chose to.