Main Street Of America


Pennsylvania Avenue burgeoned with shops, and although no money was voted for its improvement and the poplars were not doing well, nobody now could deny that it had many of the aspects of a city street. By this time most of the primeval trees in the vicinity of the avenue had been cut down. Tree-felling was a source of income for industrious woodsmen. They could cut and saw two loads of timber a day, selling the chips and bark for kindling. It was true that L’Enfant’s plan necessitated the felling of many large trees, but many that could have been spared were set upon by the poorer inhabitants and used for firewood. Mrs. Margaret Bayard Smith, a prominent Washingtonian, lamented: Beautiful banks of Tiber! delightful rambles! happy hours! How like a dream do ye now appear. … Those trees, those shrubs, those flowers are gone. Man and his works have displaced the charms of nature … the whole plain was diversified with groves and clumps of forest trees which gave it the appearance of a fine park. Such as grew on the public grounds ought to have been preserved, but in a government such as ours, where the people are sovereign, this could not be done.

Until 1817, the federal government owned all the lots on the south side of the avenue from Sixth Street to the Capitol, and on the north side from 4½ Street to Second Street. Nothing had been done with this land, however, and it made an unsightly contrast to the now-thriving west end of the street. At last Congress decided to subdivide and sell part of it. Alternate lots on the north side were offered, provided buyers would build three-story brick houses on them within three years. Whether because the price was too high or because people considered the lots too isolated, the sale was a failure. The land was finally auctioned off at the humiliating sum of forty-seven cents per square foot.

L’Enfant had called for the channelling of the Tiber into a canal, but the city fathers had early abandoned this idea as too expensive. However, a private company obtained permission to dig a canal from the Eastern Branch to the Tiber. This would enable barges to carry produce to the center of town, particularly to the Center Market, which occupied the area south of Pennsylvania Avenue where the National Archives building now stands. The canal was opened for business in 1815, but it was not the stimulating success that its backers had hoped for. It was not deep enough and had to be dredged continually. Meanwhile, where the Tiber and its tributaries crossed the avenue, wooden bridges had been put up to replace the perilous logs of an earlier day.

There was no omnibus line on the avenue until 1830. The poor walked, the moderately well-to-do went by hack, and the rich had their own carriages. Nobody, however, was safe from mud, dust, and wind on the avenue. John Quincy Adams, while he was Secretary of State under Monroe, noted in his diary: Our carriage in coming for us was overset, the harness broken. We got home with difficulty, twice being on the point of oversetting, and at the Treasury office we were both obliged to get out in the mud. It was a mercy that we all got home with whole bones.

Pennsylvania Avenue had a distinctly commercial flavor, but in those early decades a few private citizens had houses there. Among them were Jonathan Elliott, the proprietor of the Washington Gazette , and Joseph Wood, a portrait painter. The consul general of France had his residence and office at Fourteenth Street. Several doctors and lawyers also had offices combined with homes on the avenue, as did a few dentists, who in those days were socially on a level with druggists and barbers. On the south side, by the early 1820’s, there were a bakehouse, Bates’s auction rooms, and Mr. Lepreux’s grocery. Lepreux was one of a number of French émigrés who had found their way to Washington during one or another of France’s upheavals. Another was a Monsieur Labbé, who gave dancing lessons to the children of Washington’s growing elite in a house on the south side of the avenue.

These Frenchmen were on hand to swell the crowds and the volume of cheers that greeted the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited Washington during his triumphal progress through the United States in 1824. On the morning of October 12, Lafayette was escorted into the city by cavalry troops and revolutionary veterans and was met at the east entrance of the Capitol grounds by twenty-four young ladies in a chariot. Each wore a white muslin dress with a blue scarf and a wreath of red roses, and each bore a banner emblazoned with the name of one of the twenty-four states. A twenty-fifth young lady bore the banner of the District of Columbia and delivered a short address of welcome. One of George Washington’s tents had been set up in the Rotunda, and the Marquis was escorted through it to the eastern portico. There, in view of a dense crowd, speeches were exchanged and a seventy-eight-line poem read in honor of “The National Guest.” After a gun salute and a review of troops, the guest entered his carriage and proceeded down the avenue to the President’s House. The sidewalks were jammed, and, to quote the Intelligencer , … the most pleasing sight was the windows on each side of [the avenue] filled with ladies, in their best attire and looks, bestowing, with beaming eyes, their benedictions on the beloved Chief, and waving white handkerchiefs, as tokens of their happiness.

It was the biggest and one of the most memorable parades in the avenue’s history.