February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
It runs from the site of David Burnes’s farmhouse across old Goose Creek to Jenkins’ Hill. Linking the White House and the Capitol, it is Washington’s grand avenue, the
O n cold, foggy morning in March, 1791, a young French military engineer in the service of the United States government rode out on horseback to a stretch of farmland between the Potomac and Anacostia rivers to contemplate the wide sweep of boulevard he would cut through alder and blackberry bushes as the great ceremonial way of a nation. It would be, he wrote later in his imperfect English to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, ”… a grand and majestic avenue … as grand as it will be agreeable and convenient … and all along iicle of which may be placed play houses, room of assembly, ;iccadeinies and all such sort of places as may be attractive to the learned and afford diversion to the idle.” The young Frenchman, Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a veteran of the American Revolution, had been commissioned by President Washington to plan a Federal City on the banks of the Potomac, and this majestic: and convenient street was to be the grand thoroughfare of the new national capital.
The site, which was handsome in its natural state, had belonged to one Ffrands Pope, Esquire, who had received it from the English Crown. It was a large acreage on the site of the present city of Washington. Hc called his property Rome, and the creek that ran through it the ‘Filier. According to tradition, he also called the highest hill in the region the Capitoline, but this seems too pat to be true, particularly since it was not his hill but his neighbor’s. After he died and his land fell into the hands of persons not named Pope, his little joke no longer had a point. The plantation called Rome was broken up, and the Tiber came also to be known as Goose Creek because of its wild geese and other birds. The hill, in honor of some now-forgotten Mr. Jenkins, was called Jenkins’ Hill or Jenkins’ Heights; so it was still known in 1790, when Congress decided to build a new capital city somewhere between the falls of the Potomac and Alexandria, Virginia. George Washington, who was asked to choose the site, decided on the place where Pope had owned Rome oxer a hundred years earlier.
Although the notion of planning a brand-new capital city AVas unprecedented, there was already an applicant for the job. Two years before, while Congress was still mulling over the qualificaticns of various established cities, L’Enfant had written Washington: No nation perhaps had ever before the opportunity offerd them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their Capital city should be fixed; or of combining every necessary consideration in the choice of situation; and altho’ the means now within the power of the country are not such as to pursue the design to any great extent it will be obvious that the plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for that aggrandisement & embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue to any period however remote.
Washington had a high opinion of L’Enfant, who “added considerable taste to professional knowledge,” and in the field of planning and designing public works was “better qualified than anyone … within my knowledge in this country, or indeed in any other, the probability of obtaining whom could be counted upon.” At Washington’s request, Congress appointed I/Enfant to plan the new city. Andrew Ellicott, a highly respected engineer, was given the official post ol Geographer General and assigned as chief surveyor. Then—an early example of congressional caution and fondness for too many cooks—Congress appointed three commissioners (Thomas Tohnson and Daniel Carroll of Maryland, and Dr. David Stuart of Virginia). Although these three were to work under L’Enfant’s direction, they were to be answerable only to Congress. Secretary Tclfcrson was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the new city and its planner. City planning had long been one of his many interests, and he lent Major L’Enfant a collection of maps of stich European cities as Paris, Amsterdam, Karlsruhe, Turin, Orléans, and Milan.
In March, 1791, the Georgetown Weekly Ledger reported the arrival in Georgetown of “Major Longfont, a French gentleman employed by the President of the United States to survey the lands contiguous to George-town, where the Federal City is to be built. … He is earnest in the business and hopes to be able to lay a plan of that parcel of land before the President upon his arrival in this town.”
The nineteen owners of the land that lay between the Potomac and its Eastern Branch, or Anacostia River, were also “earnest in the business.” Nearly all of them were reconciled to a sacrifice for the national good, but hoped that a certain amount of good might accrue to themselves. Only one of them, a Scot named David Burnes, whose farm lay on the present site of the White House, the Treasury, the Pan American Union, part of the Mall and the Ellipse, and part of Pennsylvania Avenue, wanted nothing to do with the affair. When Washington sent his secretary, Tobias Lear, to call on Burnes and tell him that he was going to have to give up his farm, the testy Scotsman replied that he wished to stay where he was, and added the gratuitous remark that if George Washington had not married the rich Widow Custis he would never have amounted to anything.
I f, on that cold, foggy morning of March 12, 1791, Burnes had happened to look out of an upstairs window, he might have seen a stranger on horse- back riding through the forest that grew on the rise back of his fields. On such a day, the stranger could not possibly be out for pleasure; nor was he hunting, for he carried no weapon. As Burnes might sourly have surmised, this was “Major Longfont” (or “Langfang,” as Washington spelled it), bent on more violence than an army: the destruction of every farm in sight, the razing of the forests, and the obliteration of pretty little Goose Creek. In the Major’s mind, marble temples and palaces were rising from forest, swamp, and potato field: a “President’s Palace” just north of the Burnes farmhouse; on Jenkins’ Hill (”a pedestal waiting for a superstructure,” as he described it later) an imposing “Congress House.” At its foot would be five fountains and a great cascade, emptying into the Tiber; a “temple” for national celebrations “such as public prayer, thanksgivings, funerals, orations, etc., and assigned to the special use of no particular sect or denomination, but equally opened to all”; a pantheon for tombs of national heroes; a column “to celebrate the first rise of a navy”; and, of course, a suitable monument to the Father of his Country (see “George Washington’s Monument” in the December, 1968, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Then, through the low, swampy area between the hill and the “Palace,” he would cut his grand boulevard.
The Tiber and two other creeks were in the path of this majestic street, but L’Enfant did not concern himself with such trivialities; if he wanted an avenue in that place, it was for underlings to get rid of the creeks. His letters of this period show nothing but optimism and excitement. In April he wrote to Alexander Hamilton that “no position in America can he more susceptible of grand improvement than that between the eastern branch of the Potomac and Georgetown.” He hoped and felt confident that the city would soon fill up with people.
In July, 1791, the clearing of the forests began. A few foundations were dug, and brick kilns were erected where they would be handy. Andrew Ellicott and his assistants had finished surveying for the central and most important components of the city—the President’s House, the Congress House, and the grand avenue that was to connect them. However, the clearing of this grand avenue had to be delayed until David Burnes, who was finally persuaded to sell his lands, had harvested the fields that stood in its path. The surveyors were now working on the other avenues that were to radiate from Capitol Hill.
As progress grew, so did problems. Major L’Enfant had an unfortunate lack of tact, and great impatience with lesser intelligences. Although he had been ready to lay down his life for the theory of democracy, his temperament was autocratic; a working democracy, with all its bureaucrats and red tape, was a disagreeable surprise to him. Fearing land speculation, he refused to allow even the appointed commissioners to see his completed plan. Necessity obliged him to show it to Ellicott, but he considered the plan to be his alone to do with as he wished. On August 19 he sent it to Washington, along with copious notes. Pennsylvania Avenue was to be 160 feet wide, with ten feet of sidewalk on each side, then thirty feet of gravel walk planted with trees, and eighty feet in the middle for a carriageway.
At about this time the commissioners, tired of being ignored and anxious to get on with the development of the city, advertised a sale of lots to be held on October 19. Aware of the commissioners’ antagonism toward the chief planner, Jefferson and James Madison met with them in Georgetown and tried to smooth things out. As a result of the meeting, L’Enfant, who was in Philadelphia, was asked to arrange for the engraving of 10,000 copies of his map. Perhaps he was slow in placing the order, or perhaps the engraver was slow in filling it; in any event, no copies were ready in time for the sale of lots. Washington did not blame L’Enfant, but he was annoyed when he learned of the Frenchman’s continuing refusal to allow the circulation of hand-drawn copies, even to Congress. L’Enfant insisted that in this way he was preventing speculators from buying up all the best lots before the general public had a chance at them. But the sale was disappointing, and Washington wrote sympathetically to one of the commissioners, “none who knew what they were about would be induced to buy, to borrow an old adage, ‘a pig in a poke.’ ”
Another wrangle between L’Enfant and the commissioners brought matters to the explosion point. The largest property owner in the District, Daniel Carroll of Duddington, a nephew of Commissioner Daniel Carroll, was building a new house. As far as was apparent to him and to most people, the house was on his own property, in the middle of pleasant woods and fields. But for L’Enfant, consulting his secret map, part of the house intruded upon New Jersey Avenue. He ordered it removed. The owner demurred and the commissioners backed him up. L’Enfant sent a party of workmen under the direction of his chief assistant, Isaac Roberdeau, to carry out his orders. The commissioners arrested Roberdeau, but when L’Enfant took over and directed the demolition, the commissioners hesitated to arrest their chief and advised the owner to lay his case before Washington.
The President was distressed. He was anxious that everything should go smoothly in the Federal City, fearing that any trouble would give opponents in Congress an excuse to try to cancel the whole scheme. He suggested to Carroll that he might allow the demolished walls to be rebuilt at public expense in a more acceptable place; or that he might rebuild them at his own expense, finish the house, and live in it for six years, at which time it would have to be removed. To L’Enfant, Washington wrote that “no precedent will be established by yielding a little in the present instance.”
L’Enfant, however, had no intention of yielding. Can-oil’s case eventually went before the Attorney General, who awarded indemnification to the tune of $4,500, a very large sum in those days. Meanwhile, Washington and Jefferson were gravely concerned about the temperament of their city planner. His conduct might be due to zeal or to an impetuous temper, “but be it what it will,” Washington wrote Jefferson, “it must be checked; or we shall have no commissioners.”
Jefferson replied, “to render him useful, his temper must be subdued.” But that task, even for two of the most adept statesmen in history, was too great. On February 27, 1792, Jefferson wrote L’Enfant, “I am instructed by the President to inform you that notwithstanding the desire he has entertained to preserve your agency in the business, the condition upon which it is to be done is inadmissible & your services must be at an end.” L’Enfant had held his post not quite a year. Andrew Ellicott succeeded him, and the first engraved plan of the city, copied closely but not exactly from L’Enfant’s, was issued under Ellicott’s signature.
With the temperamental genius out of the picture, the building of the capital proceeded at a deliberate, workaday pace. George Washington laid the cornerstone of the President’s House in September, 1793. The following year he marched down Pennsylvania Avenue with a delegation of Masons to lay the cornerstone of the Capitol. If this modest procession, picking its way over stubbled ground and along logs thrown over the creeks, can be called a parade, this was the first parade on Pennsylvania Avenue.
L’Enfant’s “agreeable and convenient” avenue was called Pennsylvania, according to some sources, to help the state of Pennsylvania bear her disappointment at not retaining the national capital at Philadelphia; others say that because Pennsylvania is the central state of the original thirteen, it was logical to give its name to Washington’s central avenue. Whatever the reason, it was an avenue in name only and remained so for some years. One of the first descriptions of it appears in the memoirs of one Thomas Twining, an Englishman who visited Washington in April, 1796. He wrote that, on leaving Georgetown, he entered a large wood through which a very imperfect road had been made, principally by removing trees, or rather the upper parts of them, in the usual manner. After some time this indistinct way assumed more the appearance of a regular avenue, the trees here having been cut down in a straight line. Although no habitation of any kind was visible, I had no doubt but I was now riding along one of the streets of the metropolitan city. I continued in this spacious avenue for half a mile, and then came out upon a large spot, cleared of wood, in the center of which I saw two buildings on an extensive scale and some men at work upon one of them.
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.
By the end of the ten-year period allotted by Congress for the creation of the city, Pennsylvania Avenue was little more than a clearing in the landscape. Of the city’s 372 private houses—109 of brick and 263 of wood—scarcely a dozen faced the avenue, and most of these were on the north side. A few lots on the south side had been cleared as lumberyards, but as the ground there was low, wet, and swampy, it was not an appealing building site. At high tide the waters of the Tiber came to within twenty-five feet of the avenue itself, and storms regularly brought the water clear across it. Receding, the river left catfish in the puddles. When the tide was low, small boys waded about in the Tiber, looking for turtle nests on its reedy banks. Rabbits and squirrels abounded. When the birds were migrating, there were so many wild ducks in the swamps that a person standing on Pennsylvania Avenue might bring one down with a stone. The Mall was a pasture generally known as the Commons; people had already forgotten that it was supposed to be, in the words of L’Enfant, “a public walk … that will give to the city from the very beginning a superior charm over most of those of the world.” Certainly it is a measure of the optimism of Federal America, as well as of the persuasiveness of its leaders, that by 1800 more than 2,500 citizens called this unpromising village home.
In May of that year the official building period was over; and whether Washington, D.C., was ready or not, the federal government was coming. President John Adams travelled from Philadelphia by coach, taking eight days on the road. The 131 government clerks, and various cabinet members, along with the archives and office paraphernalia, arrived by sloop—down the Delaware River to the ocean, thence up Chesapeake Bay, and up the Potomac to the mouth of Rock Creek. Most of the new arrivals, including the President, prudently left their families at home, for, as the entrepreneur Blodget had foreseen, the capital city was in dire need of lodginghouses. When Congress convened in November, the members were lucky if they slept only two to a room and not two to a bed. Speaker of the House Theodore Sedgwick was the only member of that first Washington session of Congress who found a bedroom to himself. A few members of Congress rented houses for their families in Georgetown; daily contact with them was impossible, however, for after a rain it took hours to ride or drive between Georgetown and Capitol Hill.
The scene around the Capitol was a dismal one. Albert Gallatin, then serving in Congress, thus described it in a letter to his wife: ”… seven or eight boarding houses, one tailor, one shoemaker, one printer, a washing woman, a grocery shop, a pamphlet and stationery shop, a small dry-goods shop and an oyster house.” Westward toward the unfinished President’s House he saw a gash through the alder bushes that was Pennsylvania Avenue; beside it, looking somewhat incongruous, rose the tinner’s and the coachmaker’s and two or three smaller houses.
Washington had purposely placed the Executive Mansion a mile away from Congress so that the President would not be annoyed by congressmen continually dropping in. With a sea of mud between them, there now seemed danger of their losing touch altogether. One of the first acts of the newly convened Congress was to vote $10,000 for making sidewalks on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Wide enough to accommodate two people walking abreast, they were made of chips from the stone blocks used to build the Capitol. People complained that the chips cut their shoes and covered them with white powder, and that on wet days the powder turned to ooze in which one might well lose a shoe. Even at that, pedestrians were better off than those who rode in hacks or coaches and were either splattered with mud, choked with dust, or upset by hidden tree stumps. Even the President’s lady, Abigail Adams, who arrived in the fall, was often delayed by mud when paying calls by coach. She described Washington as “a wilderness city,” but bravely added, “It is a beautiful spot, capable of every improvement, and the more I view it the more I am delighted with it.” Tongue in cheek, Senator Gouverneur Morris termed Washington “the best city in the world for a future residence. We want nothing here but houses, cellars, kitchens, well informed men, amiable women, and other trifles of this kind, to make our city perfect.”
But now that the government had taken up its permanent residence, civic improvements began to move at a faster pace. The cost of lots was cut in half, which had the desired effect of stimulating new building. Stage lines, running north and south, made travel more agreeable. Occasionally there were dances and Marine Corps band concerts. A newspaper, the mark of a real city, began publication in the fall. It was called the National Intelligencer . In the winter of 1800–1801, Pennsylvania Avenue was cleared of stumps and bushes to its intended width of 160 feet. Still, not a few of the uncomfortable and homesick congressmen were convinced that the new city would never work, and they nearly succeeded in passing a resolution to move the government elsewhere. Fortunately for the city, the President inaugurated on March 4, 1801, was its greatest backer and enthusiast, Thomas Jefferson.
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.
Washingtonians early became accustomed to exotic or foreign faces on their streets. Besides the American Indians, there were the flamboyantly dressed envoys from Algiers and Turkey, and the elegant ones from Europe. The private parties were rather too heterogeneous for class-conscious Europeans, and there were no first-rate public amusements. Housing was hard to find, and the climate was regarded as miasmic. For years, the British made an effort to assign only bachelors to Washington, to avoid the cruelty of sending women and children there. Stratford Canning, a British minister, wrote to his sister in 1822, In the present imperfect state of this celebrated metropolis the life of a foreigner must ever be one of privation and restraint. … I try to make the best of my bargain; I swear occasionally—you women cannot conceive the comfort of swearing—and I occasionally repeat to myself old saws and fag-ends of verse about patience. If I cannot get the last new novel I shut myself up and wait for better times.
Canning described Pennsylvania Avenue as “a low flat space of considerable extent,” and believed that nothing short of a miracle could make Washington a success. “It would take a century to carry its population up to 30 or 40 thousand souls,—black souls and white.” (He was wrong by some seventy-five years: the population of Washington reached the 30,000 mark sometime between 1840 and 1850.)
Other foreign representatives did their share of complaining. The Spanish minister in 1805 wrote that it was difficult “to produce as decent dinner in the new capital without sending fifty or sixty miles for its materials.” The Portuguese minister, Abbe Correa de Serra, coined a famous epithet for Washington that can be taken as kindly or unkindly, depending on the listener: “The City of Magnificent Distances.”
Local residents complained even more than the diplomats and the congressmen. One resident expressed the conviction that L’Enfant had made Pennsylvania Avenue so very wide in order that “dire necessity” would force Congress to pave and improve it as quickly as possible. Another wrote the City Council: I find the communications to and from my house intercepted by a ditch adjoining the pavement on Pennsylvania Avenue and by a marsh which fronts me on the East. A carriage, a cart, or a single horse cannot pass from the Avenue to my house. It is even difficult … on foot.
Yet despite universal grouching, there was an esprit de corps in Washington comparable to that of good sailors on a rough voyage. There were those who stayed on deck despite the rolling seas—and succeeded in enjoying themselves.
By 1810, the population had increased to 8,208. When James Madison was inaugurated in 1809, he and his friend Jefferson rode down Pennsylvania Avenue in an open carriage, acclaimed by a crowd estimated at close to 12,000—for the roads into the city and the hotel accommodations were now such that people from as far away as Baltimore were able to make the inaugural ceremonies an occasion for a sightseeing spree.
As far as Washington was concerned, the War of 1812 was the war of August, 1814. The redcoats, led by Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, set fire to the Capitol and then marched up Pennsylvania Avenue and did the same to the abandoned President’s House. That evening and the next day they also burned the Library of Congress, the Navy Yard, the Potomac Bridge, and the War and Treasury departments. They would have burned the Patent Office (then in Blodget’s Hotel) too, had they not been dissuaded by its superintendent, Dr. William Thornton, who stood at the door and told them that to burn patent models would be a crime comparable to the burning of the library in Alexandria. “Are you Goths or Vandals?” he asked them. British newspapers, when word of the conflagration reached London, were distressed and indignant.
Admiral Cockburn spent the night of August 24 at Mrs. Suter’s boardinghouse, on the corner of Fifteenth Street and the avenue. He had been there some weeks before, disguised as an ordinary traveller, and he now reintroduced himself to Mrs. Suter with elaborate courtesy. He might have lodged there longer, but next day the city was struck by a tremendous storm, with winds of hurricane force that tore off roofs and sent featherbeds flying through the air. The Admiral, having the safety of his ships in mind before anything, decided to withdraw.
When Congress met in special session in September, 1814, Washington’s fate had never been so much in jeopardy. Several members spoke in favor of abandoning the city. But pride overcame practicality: better to live with charred buildings and desolate streets than allow the enemy to claim to have driven the Americans from their capital. Once this decision was made, the city’s lagging esprit was revived. Latrobe put aside his complaints and set to work rebuilding the Capitol.
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.
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.