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Avenue Of The Presidents

Pennsylvania Avenue has gone through a remarkable evolution over its 200-year history.

Appointed by George Washington to design the new nations' capital city, French born Pierre L'Enfant hoped this main roadway - his "Grand Avenue"- would be lined with academies, lecture halls and other institutions of such sort as may be attractive to the learned and afford diversion to the idle."

The route was laid out in early 1792. And, like the city of Washington, it developed slowly. In 1801 Connecticut Congressman John Cotton Smith found the Avenue to be "a deep morass covered with elder bushes." Other congressman found traveling the avenue was such an unpleasant experience that they authorized a gravel path be built using stone chips left over from the construction of the capitol.

When the nation's third president took office that year, he was dismayed at the condition of the boulevard. After taking the oath of office, Jefferson mounted his horse and rode back to the White House. He was "followed by a large assemblage of members of the Legislature, citizens, and strangers of distinction," thus starting the custom of a parade honoring a new president.

The wide muddy road he took had little of the elegance promised by L'Enfant's plans. Jefferson ordered that the road be paved in gravel and drains installed. He also had double rows of Lombardy poplars planted along the row to dress it up.

By his second inauguration the poplars were flourishing and the streets were fairly clear of mud.

But when James Monroe was sworn in for his second term in 1813 the avenue was once again in disrepair. Poor residents, suffering from an economic depression, had pulled down most of the poplars for firewood. Drains had crumbled and the street was once again a 160 foot-wide trough of mud.

Even so, building along the avenue continued. Markets, shops and boarding houses began to fill up the canyon. Later hotels, restaurants and theaters were added. The city's most famous hotel - The Willard - was built in the 1830s and still stands today. The National Theater occupied the first of its six successive buildings in 1835 and remains in business there today.

The muddy quagmire was not successfully paved until the late 19th century. Water from nearby Tiber creek routinely flooded into Pennsylvania Avenue and washed away the gravel in the street. Cobblestones were laid in 1845-1848, but were unpopular with many carriage riders.

Never a commercial success, the nearby City Canal on the south side of the road had turned into an open sewer. Rotted fish, poultry guts and animal carcasses were routinely dumped into it. Animal and human waste from the Avenue's stables, houses and hotels also went straight into the Canal. President Abraham Lincoln would flee the stench at the White House for the sweeter air of the Old Soldiers Home on hot summer nights.

When Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, Washington was aoccupied city during the Civil War with thousands of soldiers stationed in town. Pennsylvania Avenue was nearly impassible. Horses dragging heavy cannons had created deep ruts in the road and the mud was often thigh high.

Tight security surrounded the President and his parade. Army sharpshooters were placed on rooftops overlooking the Avenue and people complained that they could not see the President in his carriage as it was completely surrounded by Cavalrymen.

By 1860 many shopkeepers were leaving the south side of the road for higher ground on F Street. Found undesirable by the city's elite, the area between the avenue and canal became home to warehouses, saloons and houses of ill-repute. During and after the Civil War, the red-light district between 12th and 15th streets was known as "Murder Bay" and "Hooker's Division."

Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, vice-president of the Board of Public Works, and later District Governor, first successfully paved the street with asphalt and brick during his 1871-1874 tenure. He solved the flooding problem by filling in the City Canal and had the Tiber creek confined to an underground pipe as part of a flood control project.

In 1862 the city's first horse drawn street cars rolled down tracks laid in the Avenue's center. In 1892 a cable car system similar to that of San Francisco was in place. In 1898 electric wire for the cars was placed underground on the Avenue. The last cable car trip on the Avenue occurred on January 28, 1962.

In 1885, Grover Cleveland, the first Democratic president elected since before the Civil War, used his parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to promote national unity. His parade had veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies marching.

After Boss Shepherd was forced out of office, attempts to improve the Avenue continued. Several new stately buildings were erected. But by 1914 many of the capital's leading citizens considered the street's south side an eyesore. Lined with gas stations, tattoo parlors, chop suey shops, rooming houses and cheap hotels, it was said that the south side consisted of "poor little shops with slovenly fronts that offend citizens with dignified ideas."

In Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 inaugural parade, it took marcher more than 3 ½ hours to pass the reviewing stand.

Franklin Roosevelt used his third inaugural parade in 1941 to stress the importance of national defense. While most Americans were against getting involved in the war in Europe, Roosevelt had troops in combat uniform march down Pennsylvania Avenue. By this time, most of the south side of the avenue had become a solid wall of federal buildings.

Much of the renaissance found along Pennsylvania Avenue is due to President John F. Kennedy. During his parade in 1961, he "waved to the left, waved to the right and there was nothing there."

Kennedy tapped retired Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Labor Department official, to help sart a public-private makeover of 21 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue. Though it has taken nearly 40 years the makeover is almost complete. Millions of square feet of office, arts and retail space as well as hundreds of hotel rooms, apartment and condominiums have been constructed along the road.

Jimmy Carter, in 1977 was the first president to walk down the Avenue, signaling the end of what he called the "Imperial Presidency."

In May 1995, a month after a truck bomb blew up a federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, President Bill Clinton ordered a section of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White closed to traffic, citing security concerns. Now it is only opened for ceremonial functions such as inaugural parades.

It remains to be seen if the new president, George W. Bush, will re-open the street. The Secret Service would like it to stay closed. Washington officials would like it back in use. They say the closure has caused gridlock in the city. Others argue that the White House should not give in to fears of terrorism. The president-elect has said he will consult with a variety of officials before making a decision.

For a long time acknowledged that Pennsylvania Avenue had fallen short of L'Enfant's plans of grandeur. But one of his visions has been fulfilled. The widest street in the city, with the shortest route between the Capitol and the President's House, has become the nation's "Ceremonial Way." Presidents, national heroes, foreign leaders and returning troops have all been honored with parades along the boulevard. And, untold thousands of citizens have been there to support them.

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