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Washington’s Main Street

March 2021
1min read


While planning the nation’s capital, President Washington predicted, “The Grand Avenue connecting both the palace and the federal house will be most magnificent & most convenient.” Since then Pennsylvania Avenue has indeed seen days of glory and decades of neglect. The avenue has been the route of every inaugural parade since Jefferson’s. And in muffled splendor the funeral processions of seven Presidents who have died in office have followed this way.

Early on, the avenue took shape as the District of Columbia’s central commercial artery. But in 1834 Charles Francis Adams noticed that “every thing wears the appearance of poverty and of want of permanency.” And in 1865 a foreign visitor wrote, “There is no cohesion about Pennsylvania Avenue. … It is an architectural conundrum which nobody can guess, and in which I candidly believe there is no meaning.”

Contrary to these opinions a degree of permanency does prevail. Second from the left in the modern photograph and crowded by small structures in the old one, the Willard Hotel has stood on the Avenue since 1850. Its 1904 Beaux-Arts incarnation was restored to glory and reopened in 1987 after being boarded up for nineteen years. (The windows newly cut into the side of the structure are evidence of the latest refurbishment.) At the far left stands the equally distinguished Hotel Washington. Both buildings came within a whisker of demolition in the late sixties. Also enjoying new life is the Old Post Office halfway down on the right, its soaring clock tower a fixture of the skyline and its great interior space enlivened with shops and restaurants.

From the steps of the Treasury Building, where these photos were taken, to the Capitol in the distance, both scenes reveal the vibrant untidiness of Main Streets everywhere. For what we recall as a harmonious past turns out to be—more often than not—an illusion.

Every inaugural parade since Jefferson’s has followed this route to the Capitol.

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