Podcast Ep.9 Pennsylvania Avenue: America’s Main Street

Pennsylvania Avenue is an iconic street in Washington, DC. In a few short blocks visitors can see the Capitol, White House, National Archives, U.S. Navy Memorial, and Old Post Office. However, this area wasn’t always such a grand avenue. For much of the country’s history it was actually a crime-ridden slum. To discuss the evolution of the street, Rob is joined by guest Carolyn Muraskin.

Carolyn is the owner of DC Design Tours, a tour company that runs historic walking tours with a focus on architecture, design and urban planning, including a tour along Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Show notes:

When most visitors think of Pennsylvania Avenue they imagine the iconic “main street” that presidents parade down every four years during the inauguration. However, the street has a long and complex history. At one point Pennsylvania Avenue became known as “Murder Bay” because of the extensive criminal activity that took place in the area.

In the podcast, Rob and Carolyn discuss the history of the area, going back to Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for a “grand boulevard” when he designed the city in the 1700s. However, L’Enfant was fired from the project and his vision never realized. For most of the 1800s the street it was a muddy unpaved street that even the horses hated traversing.

The McMillan Plan in 1901 revitalized the entire city, including much of the downtown area that tourists visit today. In 1914 prostitution (which was previously legal) was officially outlawed. Prohibition started in 1920 and pushed a lot of activity on Pennsylvania Avenue underground. The Public Buildings Act in 1926 was the biggest plan to redevelop the street, which continued through the Great Depression and New Deal era. Pennsylvania Avenue as we know it today developed in the years and decades since.

Visitors to Washington, DC today will find a number of sites along Pennsylvania Avenue that they may want to visit.

The Embassy of Canada to the United States is the only embassy on the section of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and White House. As our “neighbor to the north” the location signifies the friendship between the countries. If you visit in the summer, look up to see the maple leaf flags flying outside. Check out Carolyn’s blog post if you’re interested in the architecture of the building.

Stop by the United States Navy Memorial a few blocks down on the site of the former Center Market. In 1987 the city re-purposed the property into a memorial dedicated to the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. The fountains represent the seven seas and a big map in the center gives visitors a unique perspective of the world. Make sure to find the “lone sailor” statue, made with bronze from several ships.

If you’re a movie or TV fan you will recognize the J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI. The building is frequently called the ugliest building in the city. It was designed is in an architectural style called Brutalism. These days the building is literally falling apart and the FBI wants to move to a new headquarters in the suburbs. In 2017 the General Services Administration announced that after a years-long search the agency would not move locations.

A square called Freedom Plaza is a rather odd spot on the street. Essentially a big empty lot that disrupts the avenue, there is a map of the original L’Enfant city on the floor. There’s also a statue of Casimir Pulaski that you can see. Underneath is a time capsule from Martin Luther King’s historic 1963 visit to Washington, DC, including the pen he used to write I Have a Dream.

The Willard Hotel is one of the oldest and most historic hotels in Washington, DC. Before we had a big tourism or convention industry hotel options were limited. The Willard always had been a center of political conversation. Ulysses S. Grant was a frequent customer of the Round Robin Bar in the hotel and he hated the “lobbyists” who would try to approach him in the hotel lobby asking him for favors.

If you like views, the Old Post Office Tower is one of the best views in the city, especially when the Washington Monument is closed (as it is at the time of podcast publication). Even though the building is now primarily a hotel the Clock Tower is completely separate from the hotel and remains free and open to the public. Check out Rob’s video about how to access the Tower. You need to use the door on the side of the building next to Starbucks.

An obscure historic spot is the “other” FDR Memorial outside the National Archives. Franklin Roosevelt asked for a stone about the size of his presidential desk if future Americans choose to memorialize him. This one honored FDR for decades before the current (much bigger) memorial opened in 1997.

If you want to tour all of these sites (and more) check out DC Design Tours’s Presidential Neighborhood: White House & Pennsylvania Avenue Tour.

About Trip Hacks DC

Trip Hacks DC was founded by Rob, a veteran tour guide in the Nation's Capital.

Everyone wants to get the most out of travel experience; we know that planning a trip can be fun but sometimes stressful. The tips and travel hacks offered here will help you make the most of your trip and avoid missing out on the best things the city has to offer. Our trip planning e-book is the perfect resource for every first-time Washington, DC visitor.

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