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Highway History

An Imaginary Tour of Pennsylvania Avenue

Photo Gallery

The Rambler wrote the following in 1989 after actually getting out of the office, walking Pennsylvania Avenue, and taking notes along the way. The Rambler saw no need for an update, but the Highway History page sent Research Assistant Sonquela Seabron to Pennsylvania Avenue to take photographs at the sites mentioned in the tour as a way of contrasting then and now.

Imagine you are walking on Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.

You start at a small traffic circle at First Street. In the center of the circle is a statue honoring the officers, seamen, and marines of the U.S. Navy who served during the American Civil War (1861-1865). You will see several more statues honoring heroes of our Civil War and our other wars as you walk along Pennsylvania Avenue. As you look ahead, you can see the Washington Monument just off to the left.

From First to Third Avenue, the Avenue of the Presidents is not very impressive. It has one narrow lane of traffic in each direction. Cars are parked in four rows. Pennsylvania Avenue looks more like a parking lot than the grand boulevard of America that L'Enfant imagined 200 years ago.

On your left is the Capitol Reflecting Pool. It looks cool and inviting on a warm, breezy Saturday afternoon in June. Several ducks paddle about. Eight tiny ducklings swim in circles behind them. One duck takes off and flies along the surface of the water, then lands on the other side of the pool. You can't imagine why. People are sunbathing on the sloping sides of the pool, their feet dangling in the water. Alongside the pool is a series of statues honoring General Ulysses S. Grant, the great hero of the Civil War.

At Third Street, Pennsylvania Avenue opens up. It becomes the wide "Main Street of America." It has no wires overhead. The wires are underground. Traffic lights and signals are on the sides of the avenue and in the center. Every 4 years, the night before the President is sworn in, workers remove the lights from the center of Pennsylvania Avenue so the parade can march without being disrupted. All the crosswalks on Pennsylvania Avenue are made of brick.

The National Gallery of Art's East Building is on your left now, just across Third Street. You walk halfway up the block to see the one piece of art on display on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the museum. It is called "Untitled 1971-1977" by James Rosati. It is an odd sculpture. It looks like a series of metal heating vents. Maybe instead of "Untitled 1971-1977," Rosati should have called it: "Can't Think of a Title Although I Tried From 1971 to 1977."

You cross Pennsylvania Avenue, passing a small, wild garden, to look at the statue of Civil War General George Meade in front of the United States Court House. Next to the courthouse is a quiet little park, rising by steps up a hill. The park is named after John Marshall, an early Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. You find a statue of him way in the back, but it doesn't interest you too much because you never heard of Justice Marshall. Instead, you find a life-size sculpture of two old men sitting by the side of the park playing chess. Lloyd Lillie made this sculpture. You and your friends take turns snapping pictures of each other pretending to tell the old man on the right, the one about to make a move, where to put his knight.

On your walk, you will see many United States flags. The Maple Leaf flag of Canada is the only flag you will see from another country and it is located on the grounds of the new Canadian Embassy on the other side of Marshall Park. The embassy is next to the city's Employment Services Building. It is a dull building that you walk right by without really noticing. Nothing catches your eye.

Instead, you cross the street again to take a look at a nice fountain in a small park in honor of Andrew Mellon. He was our Ambassador to Great Britain from 1932 to 1933 and a Secretary of the Treasury. As you walk out of the park, a little girl turns her back to the fountain and tosses a penny over her shoulder into the pool. Her grandmother says, "Now don't tell me what you wished for."

The Federal Trade Commission occupies the block between 6th and 7th Streets on the south of Pennsylvania Avenue. At the corner of 6th and Pennsylvania, you look up at a statue symbolizing man harnessing trade. On the north side of the avenue is a "Ladies Shoe Shop." One sign in the window says, "Help Wanted." A second sign says, "20-30% Off." A third sign says, "Going Out of Business."

At 7th Street, you come to the National Archives building. That is where our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are on display, the cornerstone documents of the United States. The National Archives building rests on the spot where Tiber Creek used to flood Pennsylvania Avenue in the early 1800's. This is where Dr. Gunton's young druggist lost a shoe in the ooze in 1807. The pavement is solid today, and there's no chance you'll lose your shoe.

Two statues stand outside the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue. One is called "Study the Past" and the other explains why: "What is Past is Prologue."

In the northwest corner of the National Archives grounds, at 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, you stop to read a marble block in a small grassy plot:

"In Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1882-1945." He is the only President to serve more than two 4-year terms in office. He was elected and re-elected four times. This marble block is the only memorial in the city to President Roosevelt (although a larger memorial is being planned). The President once said he only wanted a memorial marker about the size of his desk, and that is what this marble block is.

You stop at a street vendor to get a hot dog and soda. You will see vendors all along Pennsylvania Avenue, selling everything from ice cream to souvenirs of Washington.

Crossing Pennsylvania Avenue again, you walk back to 7th Street to see two more Civil War statues. One honors the Grand Army of the Republic. That was a name for the Union army that fought to keep the country together. The other statue shows Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, another Civil War hero who was severely wounded during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

Just across 7th Street is a smaller sculpture to "Temperance." This piece honors the fight to stop people from drinking alcoholic beverages. Some people consider this the ugliest statue in Washington, D.C., but it stands today where it has for over 100 years. For many of those years, the sculpture stood in front of the Apex Liquor Store. Right behind "Temperance" is the National Bank of Washington. A huge banner on top of the building and a small sign near the door tell you this is Washington's Oldest Bank. It was organized in 1809.

Between 7th and 9th Streets, you pass the U.S. Navy Memorial on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. A low waterfall lines the avenue and a bandstand is in the center of the memorial.

As you continue your stroll along Pennsylvania Avenue, you reach the Department of Justice on the left and the J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation Building on the right. You stop to look at the large panels on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the Hoover Building. They tell the story of some of our Presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Above the panels fly replicas of the American flag as it looked at different times in our history.

Shops and offices line the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, but you cross the street to the south side to look at the row of street vendors. You can't resist anymore. You dig into your pocket and pull out some of the strange-looking American money to buy a Washington T-shirt for yourself, a Washington coffee mug for your teacher, and some Washington postcards to send to your friends. The vendors have set up shop in front of the Internal Revenue Service building. This is the agency that collects our taxes.

When you get to the next block, you pass a Victorian bandstand. Several people are eating lunch in the bandstand. No sign of a band. So you go into the Old Post Office. This old building was going to be torn down, but instead it has been converted into a little shopping mall with an eatery. The eatery has a small stage. You buy another soda and listen to a five-piece band performing rock songs. The band is from a school in Virginia.

When you finish your drink, you take an elevator to the tower above the Old Post Office. At the top, you get a long range view of Pennsylvania Avenue. After taking a few pictures, you go back down to the street. You pass a statue of Benjamin Franklin, the American printer, diplomat, and inventor. The statue is outside the Old Post Office because Franklin was a postmaster. King George III appointed Franklin in the years before the Revolutionary War.

The New Post Office Building is just across 12th Street and the District Building is between 13th and 14th Streets. That is the home of the city government. Freedom Plaza is on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. It is a large paved park, with a striped covering set up in one area to shade visitors and hold special events. You stop to read the inscription on the statue of Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski. It says he died during the Revolutionary War in the battle of Savannah in 1779. Nearby, some children are trying to jump skate-boards over a trash can. Some make it, and the others manage to avoid injury.

Right behind Freedom Plaza is the most famous hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Willard. It began in 1816 as a row of six houses between 14th and 15th Streets. By 1818, the corner house had become a hotel, which was leased to the Willard Brothers in 1847. It was expanded over the years and was completely reconstructed several times, but fell on hard times and was closed in 1968 and almost torn down. With backing from the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, private developers restored it as a luxury hotel with office and retail space. The Willard Inter-Continental that you see on Pennsylvania Avenue opened in 1986.

Traffic is light today, on a Saturday. Crossing the streets is no problem. From Monday to Friday, though, Pennsylvania Avenue is a very busy street. At 14th Street, right at Freedom Plaza, over 72,800 vehicles crisscross the intersection each work day. Over 5,700 people cross on foot.

You again cross Pennsylvania Avenue to walk through Pershing Park. It is named after General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing, the American leader of World War I. The park includes a small waterfall and pool surrounded by a picnic area and a refreshment stand. You aren't really hungry, but how can you resist having a "Robo Pop"?

At 15th Street, just past Pershing Park, Pennsylvania Avenue comes to a temporary end, right at the corner where Admiral Cockburn stayed the night he burned the President's House. You will have to turn right and walk a block to the north to get around the massive Department of the Treasury building. Behind the Treasury Building on Hamilton Place, at the point where Pennsylvania disappears at 15th, you will see a statue of Alexander Hamilton, a former Secretary of the Treasury. Despite his many accomplishments, he is probably best known today because he was killed in a duel on July 11, 1804, at Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton Place includes a statue to the military hero, William Tecumseh Sherman, who played a key role in helping the Union Army win the Civil War. You have to walk up the steps and get close to the statue of Sherman, because his name is so faded, you can hardly read it.

As you walk up 15th Street, you pass more vendors. You are definitely not hungry! But you decide to have your picture taken by a photo vendor. He takes pictures of people standing next to lifesize photographs of President and Mrs. Bush or ex-President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. You decide to have your picture taken with President Bush. The picture looks real, as if you had your picture taken with the real President, not just photograph of him.

At the front of the Treasury Building, you find Pennsylvania Avenue again. Walking up Pennsylvania Avenue, you can't even see the White House until you reach it because of the trees that block the view. A statue of another Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, is in front of the Treasury Building. He served under President Thomas Jefferson, our third President.

Just beyond the Treasury Building, you come to the White House. It is surrounded by a high fence, with concrete posts surrounding the sidewalk to stop terrorists. The White House looks smaller than you expected. You ask one of your friends to take a picture of you standing in front of the White House.

Across the street is Lafayette Square, a small park. Although the park is named after the Revolutionary War hero, Marquis de Lafayette, who was once honored with a parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, a statue of war hero and President Andrew Jackson is in the center of the park. A statue of Lafayette is in the southeast corner, where it seems like an afterthought.

Sometimes, Lafayette Square is called Washington's "village green." Early in the city's history, though, livestock wandered from nearby farms to graze on the grass in the square. The nearest farm today is miles away and any livestock heading toward this park would probably be hit by a car or truck before getting anywhere near it.

You're tired from the walk, so you stretch out on the grass by one of the two fountains and watch the families taking pictures of each other in front of the White House. Other people sit on the benches and throw popcorn to the pigeons and squirrels.

Lafayette Square is more than just a park. Because it is across the street from the White House, it is an ideal place for protesters. Some days, protesters are lined up all along the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the park with huge signs. They are big enough for the President to read the messages if he looked out the window of the White House-and was using binoculars. On this quiet Saturday afternoon, only a few protesters are on hand. One has two signs. The first sign says "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men." The other sign informs people that the protester is "Fasting for a Kinder, Gentler Nation." ("Kinder gentler nation" is a phrase President Bush made famous.) A short distance away, you read another protester's signboard: LIVE BY THE BOMB, DIE BY THE BOMB. Still another protester stands by a sign that is hard to argue with: WANTED: WISDOM AND HONESTY.

You continue your walk a little farther. Alongside Lafayette Square, concrete posts block the side street called Jackson Place. The post nearest the park looks like it has been hit by a car or truck-the concrete has been cracked off, revealing the metal post inside.

Across Jackson Place is Blair House. It was built in around 1824 and sold to the government in 1942. Foreign officials sometimes stay here when they come to see the President. In 1950, right here on Pennsylvania Avenue, Puerto Rican nationalists staged an assassination attempt against President Harry S. Truman, who was in Blair House at the time. The gun battle on Pennsylvania Avenue left one of the would-be assassins and a White House guard dead. The President was unharmed.

The Renwick Gallery is open at the corner of 17th Street, but you're pretty tired so you decide to skip the art museum. On the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the Renwick and Blair House, is the Old Executive Office Building, which was completed in 1888 after 17 years of construction. It houses White House staff. Calling it "ornate" doesn't begin to describe it. When the humorist and novelist Mark Twain tried to describe it, he came up with: "the ugliest building in America." President Harry Truman agreed. He called it a "monstrosity." Part of it is open for tours, but not on a Saturday.

That is the end of ceremonial Pennsylvania Avenue. The avenue continues on beyond the Old Executive Office Building. It also continues east of the Capitol. Beyond the White House and the Capitol, though, it is no longer the ceremonial avenue. It is just another major city street.

Back at your hotel, you get out one of the postcards you bought. It shows a view of the White House. You address it to a friend back home, then stop to think. What can you say about Pennsylvania Avenue. Finally, you write, "I just walked up Pennsylvania Avenue. My feet hurt. Wish you were here."

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000