The historic district lies on a ridge west of Wills Creek, from which Washington Street extends over a series of steep hills. The eastern portion of the district was once Fort Cumberland. Built in the 1750s, the Fort served as a frontier outpost during the French and Indian War, and as George Washington's headquarters. In the 1780s when the town of Cumberland was laid out, the fort was the focal point. Slowly, major city buildings and upper class houses were built along Washington Street. The fort area was replaced with county institutions such as the courthouse, the county's first school which later became the library, churches, a hotel and a few other commercial buildings. Three major architects made their imprint on the district. John Notman, founder of the American Institute of Architects and a facilitator of the American Gothic Revival, designed the Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Cumberland native, Bruce Price, designed Emmanuel's Gothic parish hall, before developing a successful career in New York. Locally prominent architect, Wright Butler received his first commission for the Allegany County Courthouse, to which he applied aspects of the Richardson Romanesque style. Butler, along with other local architects George Sansbury and Robert Holt Hitchens, designed most of the 20th-century houses in the district.
By the beginning of World War II, the neighborhood began a period of decline. Many of the houses were divided into apartments as Cumberland's residents were attracted to more suburban neighborhoods. Today, the attraction of living along Washington Street has been rediscovered, and the district has once again become a prestigious residential neighborhood.
Although most buildings are private residences and are not open to the public, sites such as the Allegany County Library and the Allegany County Courthouse are open during normal business hours. The Allegany County Historical Society provides tours of History House at 218 Washington St. Call 301-777-8678 for further information. Motorcoach tours and carriage rides through the district can be arranged through Westmar Tours at 301-777-0293 or 1-800-336-7963.