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Ptomaine Row

Since the founding of the District, Congress has expanded the Capitol into the surrounding community. In fact, this expansion has nearly always had a detrimental impact on the neighborhood’s historic fabric. Gone are the businesses that once thrived on B Street, for example.

In 1960, Congress decided to purchase the land between Independence Avenue, First, Second, and C Streets SE. While plans for its use were vague, House Speaker Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn feared that this property would soon become too valuable to purchase.

At the time, cheap rooming houses and inexpensive restaurants dominated the square. So much so, it was referred to it as Ptomaine Row for the dives that lined the 100 block of Independence Avenue SE. The appellation according to Webster’s refers to “any of a group of amine compounds of unpleasant taste and odor formed in putrefying animal and vegetable matter and formerly thought to cause food poisoning.”

In spite of neighborhood opposition, the sale went through and the square was razed. Some ten years later, work began on the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, which opened in 1980.

The only restaurant that remains from this earlier era is Pete’s Diner, which is around the corner on Second Street SE.

Robert Pohl worked for many years as a computer programmer but recovered from that and became a full time stay-at-home dad. With his son now in school, he has expanded his horizons and become a self-taught historian. He has written books about his house as well as Emancipation in the District of Columbia. You can reach Robert at mmecki AT gmail.com.

An earlier version of this piece was published by The Hill is Home.

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