Main Street Of America


At the Executive Mansion, which by 1817 had become known as the White House, President James Monroe received General Lafayette in the Oval Room, surrounded by the Cabinet members and other distinguished citizens. As there was no suitable guest room in the White House, the guest slept at the Franklin House, a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue at Twentyfirst Street. Although the good old gentleman must have been exhausted by his long day of being thanked, he attended a dinner given by the mayor of Washington at the Franklin House and had the strength to return the mayor’s toast with these graceful words: “To the City of Washington: the central star of the constellation which enlightens the world.”

Lafayette spent the winter touring the United States and returned to Washington in June, 1825, just before embarking for Europe. John Quincy Adams, who, like Monroe, had known the General many years before, was now President, and he presided over the ceremonies of farewell. Again, great crowds swarmed the avenue. In a sense, it was more than a farewell to the great Frenchman; it was a farewell to the ties of the Revolution, the days of rule by gentlemen-born, of idealistic democracy, of that unique eighteenth-century American combination of courtliness and simplicity. At the last moment, General and President embraced and wept.

“God bless you!” said Adams brokenly.

Adieu, adieu, grand et cher ami !”

Since the days of Adams and Lafayette, the avenue has remained a place where impressive parades and ceremonies are enacted against a less than impressive background. Until the 1870’s, the dust, mud, and filth underfoot were so bad that marchers and spectators were likely to need new shoes when the day was over; pigs were the principal means of garbage removal. In the seventies, asphalt was put down and the pigs were banished, but the shabby buildings on both sides of the avenue would have distressed L’Enfant and Jefferson. During the late nineteen twenties and thirties, disgraceful slums on the south side were replaced by the Federal Triangle (bordered by Fourteenth Street, Constitution Avenue, and Pennsylvania Avenue), but most of the north side remained a wasteland of cheap souvenir shops and nondescript office buildings.

Many a plan has been laid for the improvement of the avenue, but most have proved to be china eggs. The most recent proposal was generated in 1962, when President Kennedy set up a council, headed by Nathaniel Owings, a well-known architect, to draw up a master plan for the area; two years later the President’s Temporary Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue was established to implement it. The plan calls for the creation of a large National Square between Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets on Pennsylvania Avenue (pending the demolition of the Willard and Washington hotels), paved with ornamental brick and adorned with a profusion of seats, potted trees, outdoor restaurants, and a slightly off-center fountain. The avenue itself would be dressed up with a decorative paving material, and the sidewalks stepped up by extra curbs to accommodate parade watchers. Underpasses and superblocks would alleviate the traffic problem at awkward intersections, and motorists would park their cars underground and emerge by escalator to parks and pedestrian malls. The Federal Triangle would be completed, and new private and government office buildings would rise on the avenue’s north side.

Some headway has already been made: a reflecting pool is being built in front of the Capitol, and nineteenth-century buildings north of the avenue have been razed to make room for a new F.B.I, building, a Department of Labor building, and at least one private development, all in various stages of progress. While much of the plan can be carried out by private enterprise, there have been objections to various components of the proposal, and it still needs the approval of Congress and. the support of myriad councils, committees, and commissions. But legislators daivdlc, pressure groups press, and commissioners vacillate. And so, L’Enfant’s dream for a “majestic avenue” is unrealized to this day, 1/8 years after its conception.

—The Editors