A Brief History of Columbia Heights

  |     |   Columbia Heights

Washington, D.C. has a rich history, and its neighborhoods are no exception. Today we want to give a brief history of the Columbia Heights neighborhood and its contribution to DC.

Nestled amidst the Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Park View, Petworth, Pleasant Plains, and Shaw neighborhoods, and bordering Howard University, the area has a little bit of something for everyone. It has major retailers, downtown D.C. views, arts, entertainment, and a flourishing restaurant scene, and its roots run deep.

Columbia Heights History

Columbia Heights’ early years

Columbia Heights’ history predates that of the nation and its capital city.

19th Century

Columbia Heights started out as farmland. A British engraver purchased 121 acres from its owner and started construction on Columbian College — the neighborhood’s namesake — which was later relocated and renamed George Washington University.

The area’s first suburb-like growth began after the Civil War, and horse-drawn carriages took residents into downtown Washington.

20th Century

True development began in the early 1900s to create an upscale living area for military officers, government officials, and U.S. Supreme Court justices. It quickly became one of the most affluent D.C. neighborhoods, with carriages replaced by four streetcar lines by 1914.

Columbia Heights saw plenty of other changes around that time, including becoming home to the Washington Palace Five professional basketball team, the iconic Tivoli Theater, and music legends Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye.

Rioting following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination caused rifts and shifts in its demographic makeup. The area fell on harder times for several years but has since seen extensive revitalization through city programs, housing and business developments, and plenty of growth.

21st Century and Today

Columbia Heights DC

The Columbia Heights Metro Station’s 1999 construction brought with it easier transportation, a renewed interest in the neighborhood, and a large retail complex erected across the street in 2008.

The DC USA shopping center boasts plenty of crowd favorites, including Bed Bath and Beyond, Best Buy, Chipotle, Starbucks, Tivoli Square, and the Washington Sports Club, among other merchants and food options.

Columbia Heights is now home to award-winning restaurants, a thriving population, a farmers’ market, and a booming housing market. The 11th Street Corridor is a go-to for bars, nightlife, exhibits, cafés and coffee shops, and theaters, and multiple media outlets have highlighted the area’s booming culinary and art establishments.

An annual Columbia Heights Day Festival celebrates the neighborhood’s community, including landmarks like the Tivoli Theatre, Gala Hispanic Theatre, Dance Institute of Washington, Greater Washington Urban League, Latin American Youth Center, Central American Resource Center, Shaw/Columbia Heights Family and Community Support Collaborative, and other art and community centers.

More fun facts about Columbia Heights


  • It was featured in the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
  • Its Laotian restaurant, Thip Khao, was listed as one of the “100 Very Best Restaurants” 2017 according to Washingtonian magazine.
  • It was featured in a scene in In the Line of Fire (1993). Details magazine named 11th Street’s Maple, a wine bar and Italian restaurant, among its “America’s Hottest New Wine Bars.”
  • It is home to multiple major political houses, including the Ecuadorian, Spanish, Polish, Lithuanian, and Cuban embassies and the Mexican Cultural Institute.
  • Travel + Leisure magazine highlighted the Wonderland Ballroom for its beer garden, patio, and outdoor décor.
  • It’s community center the Banneker Community Center near Howard University, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • A former junkyard was transformed into a community farm called the Columbia Heights Green.

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