Main Street Of America


President Adams, Jefferson’s bitter rival, left town on March 3. A small delegation of citizens and soldiers went to fetch Jefferson from his lodgings—Conrad’s boardinghouse, on New Jersey Avenue—and escorted him on foot to the Capitol, a distance of two blocks. He then went on to the Executive Mansion, which he described as “a great stone house, big enough for two emperors, one pope and the grand lama.”

Jefferson, the third President, and John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth, shared a sentiment on their inauguration days: each was disturbed by the unsightliness of Washington’s most important street. Congress, however, then as now, would not be hurried. Not until 1803 were appropriations made for the improvement of the capital. The President was particularly anxious that Pennsylvania Avenue should have priority. Accordingly, one fourth of the total appropriation, or $13,466.69, was earmarked for that street alone—for building drains, for surfacing it with gravel, and for planting trees. Jefferson himself decided that Lombardy poplars should be planted in four rows the length of the avenue—a row near each curb and a row on each side of the central carriageway. Washington, in those days, was as casual as a village. An old farmer named Buntin was put in charge of a small tree-planting force, and the President came often on horseback to see how the work was progressing. “Mr. Jefferson … was fond of being where improvements were being made,” wrote a longtime Washingtonian, Christian Hines, years later. Over six feet tall, Jefferson would have been conspicuous even had he not been famous.

One stormy night in 1804, according to the same chronicler, the Tiber flooded Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol gate to above Sixth Street. A party of workmen who tried to ford the flood found themselves in over their heads. “Some caught hold of and supported themselves by bushes, others by the branches of trees, and others, who were able, climbed them,” Hines wrote. Among the crowd was Jefferson. “Mr. Jefferson felt such anxiety for these unfortunate men that he offered fifteen dollars for each person saved, and the use of his horse to any one who would make the venture to rescue them, but no one attempted it, and they had to remain in their unenviable positions all night. They could be heard at times calling each other to know if they were still living and encouraging each other to hold on until day.” Among them was an elderly carpenter named Blewer, whose “pantaloons were torn nearly from his limbs, the skin rubbed off in attempting to climb a tree or reach a limb, he being so much fatigued that he would slide down again.” At the first light of day, a young man “brought Mr. Blewer out of the swamp,” and collected fifteen dollars from the President.

By the time of Jefferson’s second inauguration, the poplars on the avenue were flourishing, the drains were working, and enough new houses had been built on both sides so that it was beginning to look something like a street. March 4, 1805, was a sunny day. About twelve hundred spectators lined the chippedstone sidewalks to watch their leader ride along the avenue, attended by the Marine Corps band, some militia, members of Congress, and a party of “citizens and strangers of distinction.” It was the nation’s first inaugural parade.

Meanwhile, progress was being made toward the completion of the Capitol. In 1803, Jefferson had appointed Benjamin Latrobe as Surveyor of Public Buildings. Latrobe was a distinguished architect who could have made more money elsewhere than his government stipend of $1,700 per annum. He designed the south wing of the Capitol and supervised its construction, fending off critics and detractors from nearly every source; but Jefferson was his staunch supporter.

If there were no quick fortunes to be made in Washington, it was clear that anyone who could operate a boardinghouse or hotel was sure of a comfortable living. In 1801 a man called Lovell put up a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue between Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets, the site now occupied by the Washington. It was the first of myriad successful hotels along the avenue. Convenient to both Congress and the Executive Mansion, the avenue was the logical place for hotels, particularly after 1806, when it became part of the post road from Baltimore to the South and a regular stage stop. To qualify for a license, a landlord had to provide “six good featherbeds and covers” and stables for ten horses. Less lavish establishments were classified as boardinghouses. By the War of 1812, Pennsylvania Avenue had more than a score of both; and though they were not the elegant buildings that L’Enfant would have chosen for the city’s principal street, at least they brought much lively hustle and bustle. The lobbies of some of the larger hotels were used as courtrooms, in the days before the city had any courthouse, and as polling places.

A hotel on the avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets, originally owned by a Mr. N. Queen, was for decades known as the Indian Queen, and Indian chiefs made it a favorite stopping place when they came to Washington to negotiate with the Great White Father. Lesser members of their numerous delegations pitched tents in the lumberyards south of the avenue. Indians in their native dress and war paint were a common sight in Washington until well after the Civil War. They went where they chose, and, in the early days at least, were treated with the same respect accorded foreign potentates. When in 1824 the Choctaw chief Push-ma-ta-ha died of croup in one of the avenue’s hotels, he was buried with military honors in the Congressional Cemetery.