I was reminded of the topic at a recent lecture by Dr. Timothy Beatly during a lecture about urban placemaking. He was speaking about ways European and Australian cities create distinctive urban environments. European cities, generally much denser and with higher foot traffic than American cities, are known for their elaborate and decorative manhole covers.
In the U.S. the topic is subject to considerably less attention. The major noteworthy book-length treatment of the subject is a text by Diana Stuart titled, “Designs Underfoot: The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City.” In the text she examines the aesthetics of manhole covers in New York City, including photos of roughly 400 covers from all five boroughs. The only other notable book I could find on Amazon is by the husband and wife team Mimi and Robert Melnick, authors of the 1974 “Manhole Covers of Los Angeles,” and a larger work titled simply “Manhole Covers,” published in 1994.
Although a decidedly a niche topic, there exists a wide variety of websites with photos of manhole covers from around the world, and several groups on flickr dedicated to the topic, the largest called simply “manhole cover” contains over 3,000 photos. After a survey of the web I’ve been unable to uncover any detailed treatment of the subject specific to Washington, D.C. This article is intended to be simply an introduction to the topic.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm by other manhole hunters for Washington, D.C., I think the city is a good place to look for them for a couple of reasons. First, much of the city has been fairly intensively urbanized for well over 100 years, and second, the city’s unique history means multiple entities have been responsible for the development of urban infrastructure. Whether it was the federal government, the region’s water and sewer authority, or one of a series of now-defunct forms of D.C. government, there’s been no shortage of agencies digging holes in the ground for various purposes.
Unlike many of the foreign examples, few of the covers I have found are unusually ornate or beautiful. Most are utilitarian in nature, and many of the contemporary covers are positively dull. Beauty aside, to the informed reader manholes can tell a story about the history and function of the modern city. Given their standard size and durable construction, manhole covers can have a long lifespan. This photo I snapped during a road re-surfacing project near the Mall shows why: when a road is re-paved, the manhole and its collar are retained:
These covers are perhaps more properly called drains; they are designed to convey water to the sewer system. The first I spotted near the U.S. Capitol, the second an unusual design I found on 10th Street in the Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood. Those curious to read more about what might happen to the wastewater when it runs beyond the grate are advised to check out Amy Longsworth’s detailed City Paper cover story from March 2005 titled “Who’ll Stop the Drain?” where a quest to uncover the mystery of an overflowing basement toilet leads her to unravel intricacies of a 100-year-old sewer system.
Many of the covers found in D.C. are owned by either the DC Water and Sewer Authority or PEPCO, the area’s electrical utility. Although generally quite dull in design, there exist a number of varieties.
Another category of covers are those installed by telecommunications companies. The first cover I spotted has the name “C&P Telephone,” (after the old Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company) dating it from before 1994, when the company was re-named “Bell Atlantic – Washington, D.C.” This AT&T cover I found downtown could perhaps be dated by the type of logo used – anyone have a guess on the year?
The first sewer system in Washington, D.C. was created by Alexander “Boss” Shepherd (more) who was by all accounts decisive if not always fiscally attentive leader. During his tenure as the head of the Board of Public Works, the city’s infrastructure was overhauled in a frantic few years that saw new sewer, paving, and bridge construction. However, the spending plunged the city government into debt. A variety of covers dating from the period shortly after can be identified by both their design, and the year stamped at the center. In fact, an example of this vintage from 1901 is the only example I found with a crack.
I found a couple examples of manholes by specific agencies in addition to the utilities. They include this GSA manhole I found near the mall, and this WMATA manhole I shot in Wheaton, MD.
Lastly there are those that defy easy explanation. I found the first also along 10th Street, and the second near a new condo building near the convention center. Does SL/TS stand for Signal Light/Traffic Signal?
This post contains just a sampling of what the streets of Washington contain, mostly along several streets I happened to walk along recently. I have omitted any mention of water or gas meters, which have their own story to tell. Lastly, this photo suggests D.C. may contain covers quite a bit more interesting than those highlighted above. Will someone find an original Shephard-era manhole cover? Does the city contain a truly beautiful manhole? Only time will tell.
> The Wikipedia’s manhole cover article is a good overview of the topic
> This NPR story contains a slide show of foreign manhole covers: When Traffic Lights make Us Stop and Think
> Gotham Gazette has a review of Designs Underfoot: The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City
> Check out the DC Water and Sewer Authority History Page for a remarkably detailed article on the history of D.C. sewer
> The March 4, 2005 Washington City Paper cover story “Who’ll Stop the Drain?” is a humorous exploration of the D.C. sewer
> View my photos of Manhole Covers and Other Items in Washington, D.C.