Pennsylvania Avenue

Laid out in Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the federal city, Pennsylvania Avenue’s most significant portion is the 1.2-mile diagonal stretch that runs between the White House and the U.S. Capitol. By creating a direct linkage between the two significant structures, the avenue is both a symbolic and physical reminder of the interplay between the legislative and executive branches of government.

Since its conception, the avenue has seen a progressive series of changes along its length which provide an architectural history of the changing landscape of Washington and the nation. The history of the avenue has been marked both by periods of decline and growth which have influenced its design and development. Significant change has also taken place since the creation of the 70-acre Beaux Arts style Federal Triangle complex in the 1930s – an outgrowth of the recommendations proposed by the McMillan Commission in 1902.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy created the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue to address the lackluster state of what many thought of as America’s Main Street. The commission proposed simplifying intersections, building new public spaces, and opening up vistas between the National Archives and National Portrait Gallery. After Kennedy’s assassination Lyndon B. Johnson advanced the work by establishing the President’s Temporary Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue. Further development occurred in the 1980s, led by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC). Sidewalks were widened to accommodate a third row of newly planted Willow Oak trees along the northern side, and a unified streetscape was installed that included brown-brick pavers, granite curbing, and street furnishings designed by Sasaki Associates. Additionally, several significant parks and open spaces were added along the route, including Pershing Park, Freedom Plaza, and John Marshall Park. The U.S. Navy Memorial which was also part of the PADC’s work was completed in 1987. Centrally located across from the U.S. National Archives, the design includes curved fountains and a granite map of the world’s oceans. The stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was temporarily closed to vehicular traffic following the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – that decision was made permanent following 9/11.

Today the iconic avenue is still one of the most traversed routes in Washington. Generous sidewalks are shaded by a formal allée of mature willow oaks, dotted with memorial statues and a French-inspired furnishings palette of benches, drinking fountains, and tree grates.


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