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Where did Washington DC’s 1950 Population of 800,000 Live?

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

In 1950 the United States federal census recorded the population in the District of Columbia at 802,178 — Washington’s high population milestone. Today, as Washington’s estimated population crosses the 700,000 mark and may surpass 800,000 in 2025, we might look back and see what has changed; where within DC’s 64 square miles did people live then and how does that compare to where they live now.

Graph of Washington DC's population change from 1800 to 2010. compiled by the author.

Graph of Washington DC’s population change from 1800 to 2010. compiled by the author.


The District’s population initially grew slowly, beginning with the transfer of the federal government to the Potomac in 1800. The Civil War and aftermath brought tremendous population growth in the mid- and later 1800s, continuing strongly through the New Deal era and World War II. Surprisingly, DC’s population peaked, not during World War II but shortly afterward.

Annual estimates of the population having peaked at 900,000 in 1948, [1] with some radical fluctuations of 10% before and afterward. Such swings might make the estimates look a bit suspect. But the Board of Trade did a survey of population in 1945 which indicated 10% of the population expected to move away from the Washington area in the next year, lending credence to the census estimates. In addition, the military population does not seem to have been consistently included in the estimates, adding to the variability.

To compare 1950 statistics to current some data analysis is required. The map labeled no. 1 shows the census tracts used in 1950 with today’s (DC Office of Planning) neighborhood names. Census statistics are collected on the block, block group, and census tract level. But neighborhood names are much more familiar and offered for orientation.

Map no. 1 shows the District’s census tracts as of 1950 with the current neighborhood names superimposed and the outline of the original City of Washington as laid out by Peter Charles L’Enfant. compiled by the author.

Map no. 1 shows the District’s census tracts as of 1950 with the current neighborhood names superimposed and the outline of the original City of Washington as laid out by Peter Charles L’Enfant. compiled by the author.

Mapping the statistics from the 1950 DC census compared to those of the 2010 census allows us to illustrate where shifts in the population concentration occurred — both losses and gains.

In 1950, much of the population was still concentrated in the area bounded by Florida Avenue to the north and the Potomac — the original L’Enfant Washington City plan. Slightly less than one quarter of the area of the District’s territory, in it housed 35% of the population. It had taken 60 or more years for development to jump over what was then Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue) into what was then the County of Washington; but the growth of the residential population beyond had still barely reached the boundaries of the District itself (Western, Eastern, and Southern Avenues).

Many of these newly developed areas were streetcar suburbs, dependent on transit to the center city, rather than self-contained neighborhoods — development resembled more Boston than London, which was comprised of many towns grown together.

Washington’s historic core stretched across the L’Enfant city, from the banks of Rock Creek at Georgetown diagonally along Pennsylvania Avenue to the banks of the Eastern Branch (Anacostia River) at the Navy Yard. Commercial Washington would slowly migrate from its downtown spine of  F Street, NW between 7th and 15th Streets to K Street further north and west.

The 2010 federal decennial census recorded the District’s population as 601,723 — three quarters that of that of 1950. Map no. 2 illustrates patterns of change in where DC’s population lived between the two, 60 census years apart. The tracts used are those from the 1950 census. [2]

Map no. 2 illustrates patterns of change in where DC’s population lived between the two census years. The tracts used are those from the 1950 census. compiled by the author.

Map no. 2 illustrates patterns of change in where DC’s population lived between the two census years. The tracts used are those from the 1950 census. compiled by the author.

Blue indicates population decline, red indicates increase. The baseline decline in population is 25%; tracts with that loss are left uncolored. Blue shades indicate population loss greater than the average 25% overall city decline, with darker color gradations indicating greater loss. Those tracts in red shades show an increase in population over 1950, with darker color gradations indicating greater increase.

The dashed boundary line indicates the original L’Enfant city. It is here in the original City of Washington area that the sharpest declines in population are seen, particularly in Southwest (tracts 60-64) and to the northeast of Union Station (tracts 85 and 86). The central city, southeast of Dupont Circle, the convention center area north of Mount Vernon Square (tract 49—Shaw), Truxton Circle (tract 46) and Southeast immediately south and east of the Capitol (tract 65) also show serious population declines. The sole exception is Foggy Bottom (tract 56), which shows an increase. Those tracts immediately north of Florida Avenue — LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington (tracts 33, 34, 87) also show deeper than average population loss.

Perhaps, surprisingly, there are areas of DC which have gained population since the 1950 census, shown in red. These are on the outskirts of the District, those farthest away from the original city; far to the north and west — Palisades, Spring Valley, Wesley Heights, Foxhall (tracts 8 and 9); north – Tenleytown and Forest Hills (tracts 12 and 13); north and east — Fort Lincoln (tract 90); and south and east — Anacostia, Barry Farm, Fort Stanton, Garfield Heights (tracts 74 and 75). An exception in the southwest is the blue-shaded tract encompassing the St. Elizabeths Hospital site, which has lost population more than the one quarter city-wide average.

As the population of the innermost center city, the oldest part of the city, and the near north neighborhoods above Florida Avenue declined, it rose in those areas once known (even within the District) as “suburban.” Seeing this pattern, it is familiar in 20th century urban history — the central city declining and the suburbs growing. What happened in Washington?

Washington — the planned city — had passed through several different eras of development control. The original city of Washington, laid out by Peter Charles L’Enfant had a specific design and building regulation (enforced to varying degrees over time). Outside of the boundary of the city was Washington County where for over 80 years no development controls existed. Eventually that situation became intolerable and a plan for future street layout was devise — Washington’s permanent system of highways.

While the new system could constrain development it did not address types of development within the street pattern. In 1920 the District adopted zoning regulations designed to  separate various industrial and commercial uses from residential areas and providing gradations of density.

Washington’s population grew steeply in the first half of the 20th century and housing had boomed to accommodating that population. Approximately 60% of the housing stock still existing today was built between 1920 and 1940; at this point most of the readily developable land had been developed. From the 1930s through World War II and decades following new pressures transformed the residential, commercial, industrial, and governmental features of Washington — growing or shrinking as priorities dictated.

Existing 1948 Land Use Map from "Washington present and future: a general summary of the comprehensive plan for the National Capital and its environs." National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 1950.

Existing 1948 Land Use Map from “Washington present and future: a general summary of the comprehensive plan for the National Capital and its environs.” National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 1950.

Expansion of Business District Along K Street Corridor

The 1948 Polk’s City Directory for the District of Columbia was the first published since World War II, the previous edition being 1943. [3] Included were listings for 1,205 apartment buildings or complexes (ranging from the Aberdeen to the Zellwood). Today, 42% of Washington’s population lives in apartments.

It is the distribution of those apartment houses which has changed. Of the 1,205 apartments and complexes listed in the 1948 directory, only about 650 still exist and can be mapped. In the 19th century apartments had begun to take the place of single-family homes in downtown Washington adjacent to the business corridors, becoming a kind of buffer between commercial and residential Washington. But commercial Washington was expanding, and at the expense of those apartment buildings.

Map of Central Washington indicating building construction date. compiled by the author.

Map of Central Washington indicating building construction date. compiled by the author.

The transformation of Washington’s commercial core from Foggy Bottom to the Capitol, between Massachusetts Avenue on the north and Pennsylvania and Virginia avenues on the south is illustrated by data on building construction dates and shows how what we see now was almost entirely constructed after 1950.

On the map of Central Washington indicating building construction yellow buildings date before 1948 and magenta after 1950. On the western end of this area, Foggy Bottom was home to 50 apartment buildings. Many of those have since been swallowed up by George Washington University for dormitories and others torn down to make way for the World Bank and IMF. A few remain on the periphery on K Street. Foggy Bottom regained this lost residential capacity with the construction of some very large apartment buildings and residential complexes, including Columbia Plaza and the Watergate.

On the eastern end of the city core, to the east of Judiciary Square, the old, small apartments would disappear with the construction of the  stub of Interstate 395. The remaining representative, the Harrison, at 704 3rd Street, NW, was landmarked in 1990.

Expansion of Federal Infrastructure

Hand-in-hand with the expansion of commercial Washington was the growth the federal footprint, with the most dramatic change due to the expansion of federal building sites in Southwest — the entire area north of E Street between 3rd and 14th. The area had been a dense mix of commercial, federal, industrial, and residential uses with churches and schools. A variety of federal office building and commercial uses have since replaced residential throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Federal facilities have also been developed in Northwest east of Judiciary Square and arcing, most recently, northwards into the new NoMa neighborhood.

Urban Renewal and Elimination of Alley Dwellings and Temporary Housing

Included in the 1948 directory were the various types of congregate housing under National Capital Housing Authority (NCHA) control. The NCHA was the successor agency to what had originally been the Alley Dwelling Authority, charged with eliminating housing in alleys. In 1944, 10 years after it was established, that agency reported one-third of alley dwellings had been removed.

NCHA urban redevelopment projects spanned the city, including St. Mary’s Court in Foggy Bottom, V Street Houses and Williston Apartments north of LeDroit Park, Hopkins Place in Southeast, Jefferson Terrace in Southwest.

Low-rent housing included Kelly Miller in Northwest; Ellen Wilson, Langston, and Parkside in Northeast; Barry Farm, Carrollsburg, Fort Dupont, and Frederick Douglass in Southeast; James Creek in Southwest.

Additionally, permanent war housing was designated for the Highland, Knox Hill, and Stoddert Dwellings — all in Southeast.

As for temporary war housing, that was of four types — “demountable,” “demolishable,” Temporary Dwelling Units (TDUs), and Mobile units (trailers).

“Demountable” unit complexes included ones located on Georgia Avenue, 35th Street, and Tunlaw Road  in Northwest; Bryant, Foote, Monroe, Meade, and Grant Streets in Northeast; Benning Road and 25th Street in Southeast; Syphax and Anthony Bowen Houses and Canal Street in Southwest. “Demolishable” units (TDUs) were located at Lily Ponds near Kenilworth Avenue in Northeast; TDUs were constructed in Foggy Bottom at O’Brien Court, NW and on Nichols Avenue, SE. Mobile units were located at in Ivy City at West Virginia Avenue and Fenwick Street, NE and on a number of lots in Southwest on 4th Street  between F and N and on 1st and 2nd between S and T, as well nearby on Half Street, SE.

The NCHA had been given responsibility for temporary housing during the war emergency. However, it was unclear whether temporary housing was the appropriate response or even cost-effective. Besides NCHA, Defense Homes Corporation, Federal Works Agency, the Navy, the Army, and the United States Housing Authority all built war housing in the District. [4]

Map of the District of Columbia depicting temporary and war housing. compiled by the author.

Map of the District of Columbia depicting temporary and war housing. compiled by the author.

While a considerable amount of temporary housing (and some permanent) was built in Southwest, wholesale redevelopment would not come to that quadrant south of E Street until the 1950s.


In testimony to Congress in 1942, NCHA’s (then still the Alley Dwelling Authority) executive director, John Ihlder, noted the difficulty he and his staff had in finding locations for the housing necessary to house the city’s burgeoning population — even space for temporary housing intended for removal within a few years after the “end of the emergency.”

Washington’s development had been proceeding apace within the confines of its governing urban design plans — the highway system and zoning. The war emergency housing need forced the government to work around those constraints and build what never would normally have been built in places where housing was never planned and would not be allowed to remain.

Housing of varying degrees of permanence was constructed across the District — from McLean Gardens in Northwest and Naylor Gardens in Southeast, to Lily Ponds in Northeast, and to Syphax Houses in Southwest. Some housing was built where it could only be temporary — Wake Hall in Anacostia Park near Oklahoma Avenue in Northeast, the Foote Street Houses near where the now decommissioned PEPCO power plant sits, Portland Street and Shepherd Parkway near Blue Plains, and Lily Ponds in Northeast.

To address the manifold issues of post-war Washington, spurred by the problems of wartime housing, an effort began to address the planning needs of the nation’s capital in a more coherent way. In 1950 the first “comprehensive plan” for Washington was published by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission (soon redubbed National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC).

The population of 1950 was not sustainable with the housing available. Not only was the supply inadequate, but there were additional pressures pushing reductions in the amount of existing housing. There was continued interest in eliminating remaining alley dwellings along with the larger amount of substandard housing, and this spawned a whole series of urban renewal plans. And, the temporary housing built for the war was to be removed.

Today, housing development is taking place in areas not previously residential. Rather than in parkland (which happened during World War II), new development is displacing manufacturing and industrial areas, ranging from the Georgetown and Southwest waterfronts, Foggy Bottom, and the railroad corridor in Northeast’s NoMa and Union Market neighborhoods. Large tracts of land belonging to educational and nonprofit institutions are being chipped away, such as St. Paul’s College in Northeast and even the Old Soldiers’ Home in Northwest. There is some impetus to convert obsolete downtown office space into residential, such as Dumbarton Place in the 1400 block of 22nd Street, NW.

In 2003 when Mayor Anthony Williams announced the goal of 100,000 more residents at his inauguration, the goal seemed ambitious and was greeted with hearty skepticism. But in some ways it was not unreasonable. DC’s population had slumped to a little more than 570,000. The knowledge that Washington had once had a population over 800,000 suggested there was plenty of room for re-growth. Carol O’Cleireacain and Alice M. Rivlin of the Brookings Institution had articulated the the goal in 2000 [5] which Williams adopted and then helped articulate strategies to accomplish. Washington reached and surpassed that goal in 2015.


Thanks to Kathryn Fanning, Commission of Fine Arts; Brian Kraft and Arlene Balkansky, Library of Congress.


[1] Several years earlier postwar annual population estimates flirted with the 900,000 mark.

[2] Data from the 2010 census block groups was aggregated to the 1950 census boundaries. In a few cases tracts were combined for this comparison due to boundary changes.

[3] Stanley Baitz, “Catalog of a city,” Evening Star Aug. 7, 1947; “Work on D.C. city directory pushed for spring delivery,” Evening Star Nov. 20, 1947. The massive influx of population into the city made it difficult to conduct the survey which was done to create the directory. Rather than annually as had been pre-war practice, the directory was published sporadically until it ceased in 1973. City directories are published for other cities (usually smaller) across the United States still.

[4] “Defense Housing And Community Facilities For The District Of Columbia” Hearings Before The Committee On Education And Labor, United States Senate, Seventy-Seventh Congress, Second Session, On H. R. 6483, An Act To Amend The Act Entitled “An Act To Expedite The Provision Of Housing In Connection With National Defense, And For Other Purposes”, Approved October 14, 1940, As Amended February 19, 20, And 24, 1942. Revised. Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1942. P.93.

[5] Carol O’Cleireacain & Alice M. Rivlin, “Envisioning a Future Washington,” The Brookings Institution.

References and Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.