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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

National Park Service Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site
District of Columbia
Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site
Pennsylvania Avenue

The part of Pennsylvania Avenue and environs between Capitol Hill, on the east, and the White House, on the west, NW., Washington.

For more than a century and a half, the segment of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol has symbolized the majesty and power of the American Republic and the achievements and travails of its people. Along this truly national thoroughfare have traveled most of our Presidents in the ritual procession following inauguration that allows the Nation to welcome them and marks the assumption of their official responsibilities. Along it in death, in state funeral processions that expressed the national sense of loss, have been borne the bodies of seven Presidents who died in office and those of other national leaders. In the vicinity, assassins' bullets struck down Lincoln and Garfield. Along the avenue, victory celebrations have signaled the close of four major wars; the public has acclaimed military and civil heroes; and the Nation has received foreign heads of state and visiting dignitaries.

Our statesmen have trod the ceremonial way not only in pageantry and death but also in their daily lives. Along the avenue and its adjacent streets, in hotels, boardinghouses, and restaurants, they lodged, dined, debated the issues of the day, and determined courses of action that affected national destiny. In the theaters and places of amusement, they sought release from the cares of office. In the markets and shops, they purchased necessities and frivolities. In the hostelries, they gathered for entertainments and celebrations, highlighted by the quadrennial Presidential inaugural balls. On the south side of the avenue, as time went on the commercial center of the Capital receded before the eastward advance of the Executive Branch of the Government that ultimately produced the Federal Triangle, which typifies the monumental architectural scale of modern Washington.

Pennsylvania Avenue
Modern view of Pennsylvania Avenue, dominated by the clock tower of the Old Post Office Building. The Capitol stands to the left in the distance. (National Park Service, Boucher, 1976.)

THE evolution of the avenue as a ceremonial route originated in Maj. Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the Capital City, in which he laid out the street as a direct link between the White House and Capitol. The widest thoroughfare in the city, it was also the first to be paved. In 1805, at the beginning of his second term in office, President Jefferson set the precedent for subsequent inaugural parades by riding to the Capitol on horseback, reciting his oath of office, and then returning to the White House along the avenue, accompanied by a group of Congressmen, other Government officials, and local residents.

As other Presidents followed Jefferson's pattern, the ritual acquired a symbolic significance: the manifestation of the formal assumption of the powers and duties of the Presidency. Except for those men who ascended to that office upon the death of an incumbent and were not elected to a second term—Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Arthur—as well as Ford, who took office upon Nixon's resignation, all the Presidents since Jefferson have participated in inaugural parades. Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who also succeeded deceased Presidents but won reelection, were honored with parades at the inception of their second, full terms of office.

President Johnson's grand review of the Union Army at the end of the Civil War was one of the greatest parades in the Nation's history. During a 2-day period (May 23-24, 1865), approximately 200,000 troops. led by Gen. George G. Meade on the first day and Gen. William T. Sherman on the second, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. (Library of Congress, Mathew B. Brady.)

Just as Pennsylvania Avenue has traditionally provided the means for the American public to greet new Chief Executives, it has also allowed for the expression of sorrow over their deaths or those of other prominent people. Of the eight Presidents who died in office, the state funerals of seven—William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, and Kennedy—have featured processions along the avenue. That of Franklin D. Roosevelt followed Constitution Avenue. Other individuals honored with funeral processions along Pennsylvania Avenue include ex-Presidents John Quincy Adams and Taft; Vice President George Clinton; Gens. Jacob Brown, Alexander Macomb, and Philip H. Sheridan; Adm. George Dewey; statesman Henry Clay; Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase; and Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson.

funeral procession
Part of the Lincoln funeral procession moving along Pennsylvania Avenue in April 1865. (National Archives, Alexander Gardner, 1865.)

Perhaps the most memorable funeral procession along the avenue, occurring in 1921, was that of the Unknown Soldier of World War I. Arriving at Washington Navy Yard from a burial ground in France aboard the cruiser Olympia on November 9, the body lay in state in the Capitol for 2 days, and was then taken via the avenue to Arlington National Cemetery for reburial. Participating in the procession were President Harding, Chief Justice Taft, General Pershing, and ex-President Wilson.

funeral procession
Harding funeral procession nearing the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 11th Street NW. (Library of Congress.)

The tradition of welcoming foreign dignitaries and paying tribute to national heroes along the avenue probably began in 1824, when a huge military and civilian contingent escorted the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the War for Independence, from the Capitol to his lodgings at Franklin House on 21st Street. In more recent times, many world dignitaries have been honored by parades along the crowd-lined street. Military leaders who were individually ac knowledged include Adm. George Dewey (1899), Gen. John J. Pershing (1919), and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1945); among the other individuals acclaimed in this manner were aviator Charles A. Lindbergh (1927) and astronaut John Glenn (1962).

The only formal victory celebration on Pennsylvania Avenue occurred in May 1865 at the end of the Civil War, when President Andrew Johnson, Congress, and the Supreme Court held a grand review of the Union Army. The greatest spectacle that has ever taken place in Washington, it lasted for 2 days and featured many of the prominent generals, as, well as thousands of their troops. Spontaneous celebrations on a lesser scale followed the end of the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II.

On other occasions, the avenue has served as a national platform for expressing dissatisfaction. One memorable example of such a demonstration occurred in the spring of 1894, when "General" Jacob S. Coxey led an "army" of unemployed workers from Massillon, Ohio, to Washington to protest the failure of the Government to alleviate the national depression following the Panic of 1893. About 500 strong, Coxey's "army" marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where police officers arrested them, ostensibly for treading on the grass, and thus ended the march.

A far more significant demonstration took place in the summer of 1932. Some 60,000 to 80,000 unemployed World War I veterans known as the "Bonus Expeditionary Force," descended upon Washington and engulfed the avenue, many of them camping in vacant buildings at the tip of the present Federal Triangle. On July 28 a force of cavalry and tanks, under the direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower, dispersed them. On other occasions, such varied groups as suffragist, civil rights, and peace demonstrators have utilized the avenue.

Throughout most of the 19th century, the environs of Pennsylvania Avenue consisted of a diverse assortment of business establishments, lodginghouses, and hotels to accommodate Government officials, relatively few of whom maintained permanent residences in the city. Most of these structures are no longer extant. Foremost among the hotels were such establishments as the National, Washington House (Gadsby's), Indian Queen, United States, St. Charles, Irving, St. James (Bunkers), Prescott House, Kirkwood, Globe, and Ebbitt. Many Presidents resided in one or more of these buildings at various times in their careers and several held inaugural balls in them. Vice Presidents John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, upon the deaths of Presidents William Henry Harrison and Abraham Lincoln, were inaugurated, respectively, in the Indian Queen and Kirkwood Hotels.

Willard Hotel
Modern view of the Willard Hotel. (National Park Service, Boucher, 1976.)

The most famous of all the Washington hotels was the elegant Willard's, at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Known as the "Residence of Presidents" and a prominent social and political center, it was described by Nathaniel Hawthorne as the "center of Washington and the nation." The present structure, closed as a hotel in 1968 but still standing and a fine example of the French-inspired Beaux Arts style, was constructed in 1901 from the design of Henry Hardenbergh, who also created the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The 1901 building replaced an earlier hotel of the same name that dated from the 1830's. Along with such national notables as Buffalo Bill, Jenny Lind, Mark Twain, and Albert Einstein, Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Taft, Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge all lodged at Willard's on various occasions. On August 21, 1923, President Coolidge took his public oath of office in his suite there. And every President from Benjamin Harrison through Eisenhower attended the annual Gridiron dinners held by the press corps.

Four Presidents—Madison, John Quincy Adams, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson—owned private residences within the boundaries of the national historic site; none of these are extant.

Another important aspect of the historical character of Pennsylvania Avenue was its role as a social and entertainment center for Presidents and other officials, as well as the general public. Until the construction of the Federal Triangle complex of buildings in the 20th century, the area within it between 11th and 12th Streets on C Street, on the south side of the avenue, traditionally housed entertainment facilities: the Washington Theater from 1805 until 1820, once attended by President Madison; and its successor, Carusi's Assembly Rooms, scene of several inaugural balls between 1825 and 1857.

Since 1835, six successive buildings at 13th and E Streets, on the north side of the avenue, have housed the National Theatre. Presidents, Congressmen, and other officials have attended performances there; in 1850 President Fillmore and his entire Cabinet were in the audience on the opening night concert of Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale." The one other major theater in the area, Ford's, on 10th Street between E and F Streets, was closed in 1865 after John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln during a performance. Today a unit of the National Park System, it is described elsewhere in this volume.

The site of President Garfield's assassination in 1881, at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad depot at Sixth and B Streets, is now occupied by the National Gallery of Art.

PROBABLY the most historically notable buildings that are extant within the boundaries of the national historic site are the public structures, which represent about a century and a half of governmental architecture. Four of them that possess National Historic Landmark status are the U.S. Department of the Treasury Building (1836-69), along 15th Street just east of the White House; the Old Patent Office (1837-67), on F Street between Seventh and Ninth Streets, presently the National Portrait Gallery; City Hall (District of Columbia Court House) (1820-81), on Judiciary Square, where John Surratt was tried for his part in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln and Charles Guiteau was convicted for the murder of President Garfield; and the General Post Office (Old Post Office) Building (U.S. Tariff Commission) (1839-69), occupying the block bounded by Seventh, Eighth, E, and F Streets.

Also of historical interest are the Old Pension Building (1882-85), on Judiciary Square; and the Federal Triangle (1928-39), a group of structures in the triangle formed by Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues and 15th Street. They provide quarters for the Federal Trade and Interstate Commerce Commissions; National Archives; Internal Revenue Service; Federal Energy Administration; and Post Office, Justice, Labor, and Commerce Departments. Earlier structures left undisturbed when the triangle was built were the old Post Office Building, noted for its clock tower, and the U.S. Coast Guard and District Buildings. Since that time, the Coast Guard Building has been razed.

The remainder of the structures within the area of the national historic site, most of them on the northern side of the avenue, consist primarily of modern commercial and office buildings. Numerous statues and memorials enhance the street's beauty. One of them, an unembellished block of marble on a small plot of land at the juncture of the avenue and Ninth Street just behind the National Archives Building, commemorates President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004