Main Street Of America


The road traversed by Mr. Twining was Pennsylvania Avenue; the “two buildings on an extensive scale” were the unfinished north wing of the Capitol and a nearby tavern. The “men at work” were mostly slaves, on hire from neighboring plantation owners. Freedom’s capitol and pharaohs’ temples had this in common—although the commissioners, unlike the pharaohs, hired free labor as well. A number of free Negroes were part of the force of laborers and skilled artisans. In the white-collar class, one of Ellicott’s chief assistants was a free Negro named Benjamin Banneker, whose mathematical abilities were so remarkable as to bring him a letter of praise from Jefferson. For the rest, there were immigrants from the British Isles who had crossed the ocean in response to some not entirely scrupulous propaganda. To give an example, a notice in the London Morning Chronicle on January 28, 1796, stated, “The magnificent city of Washington, in America, has already seven thousand houses, built in a very handsome style, and they continue building in a very rapid manner.” At the time there were in fact fewer than 150 houses in Washington, and many of those were more hovel than house.

Not all the propaganda was favorable. A little book called Look Before You Leap , published in London later in 1796, set forth a collection of letters received from English emigrants who had not looked before they leaped and had found that “the magnificent city” was a dreary and malarial hamlet. "[It is] all a mere fabrication, and a story invented to induce young fellows to come to this part of the world,” wrote one disenchanted Englishman.

“I am apprehensive,” wrote another, “[that] as soon as he [Washington] is defunct, the city … will also be the same.” The summer heat was so bad, he went on, that meat had to be slaughtered at midnight and sold before dawn. There were myriads of toads and frogs of enormous size, and “other nauseous reptiles.” The workmen lived in huts “somewhat similar to booths, that I have seen erected at country races, and fairs. …” It was true that wages were higher than in England, but expenses were also greater. But, despite Look Before You Leap , people from the British Isles, and especially from Ireland, continued to head for Washington. Ten skilled Scottish stonemasons found work at the Capitol and seventeen others at the President’s House.

Native-born Americans moved to Washington as well—skilled artisans, tradesmen, and a few professional men: doctors, lawyers, and members of the clergy. The first two houses on Pennsylvania Avenue- unpretentious, three-story brick ones—belonged to a coachmaker and a tinsmith. Both had their businesses on the premises, perhaps thus sealing the fate of the avenue as a commercial rather than a residential street. The city also attracted crooks and speculators- at least until they discovered that they were more likely to lose a fortune there than to make one.

As early as November, 1791, an architect and speculator named Samuel Blodget was able to impress Jefferson with a grandiose lottery scheme by means of which whole streets could be built up quickly. Jefferson wrote the commissioners: The magnitude of the proposition occasioned it to be little attended to in the beginning; however, great as it is, it is believed by good judges to be practicable. … The street most desirable to be built up at once, we suppose to be the broad one (Pennsylvania Avenue) leading from the President’s House to the Capitol. … The President, therefore, desires me to suggest to you the beginning at once on that avenue.

This is the first recorded reference to “the broad one” under the name of Pennsylvania Avenue. Eventually the thoroughfare grew longer, and now it runs northwest from the Capitol to Twenty-ninth Street and southeast from the Capitol across the John Philip Sousa Memorial Bridge into Maryland. But the part that is the nation’s ceremonial way and has come to be known as “the avenue” was planned by L’Enfant and lies between the Capitol and the White House, a distance of approximately 1.2 miles.

Mr. Blodget received an appointment as “superintendant,” and prepared a lottery wheel containing fifty thousand tickets. Unfortunately, not more than a hundred tickets a week were drawn. A contemporary newspaper commented that at that rate “the lottery will be drawing ten years. We therefore advise all holding tickets to mention them in their wills as they may become important possessions for … their heirs.”

George Washington, a more practical and cautious man than Jefferson, did not approve of Blodget. He wrote: “At first I was at a loss to account for a conduct so distant from any idea which I had entertained of the duties of a superintendant, but it appears evidently enough now that speculation has been his primary object from the beginning.” Blodget was relieved of his position, but, nothing daunted, tried a second lottery. This time the prize was to be a hotel, which he proceeded to build at the Capitol end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite the obvious need in the city for hotels and boardinghouses, the public was still cautious, and the lottery failed to bring in enough money to pay for the building. Blodget left town.