The Avenue of Presidents

Posted January 5th, 2012 at 12:11 pm (UTC-4)
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Have you ever seen one of those clever little historical markers that says something like this?

On October 23rd, 1846 At This Location, Nothing Happened.

I could write something like that about the place we call “America’s Main Street.”

Night falls on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Night falls on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Not much is going on right now on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Of course, a whole lot has happened there, and will again next January, when the outgoing U.S. president and the incoming one will leave the White House together, ride up the avenue to the Capitol for the swearing in of the 44th president of the United States.  The 45th if you count Grover Cleveland twice.  He was elected two different times, with Benjamin Harrison serving in between.

Next year about this time, the new president and his wife will keep with tradition by proceeding back up Pennsylvania Avenue to a reviewing stand to watch the remainder of the Inaugural Parade.

That president, of course, could very well be the current one, in which case Barack Obama won’t have anyone to ride with when he heads to the Capitol to be sworn in.

Pennsylvania Avenue stands out clearly in Currier and Ives' 1880 depiction of Washington.  (Library of Congress)

Pennsylvania Avenue stands out clearly in Currier and Ives' 1880 depiction of Washington. (Library of Congress)

While everything’s pretty quiet a block or two away from us at VOA’s Independence Avenue address, I thought I’d tell you a bit about the street we sometimes call the “Avenue of Presidents,” which was designed by the city’s planner, Pierre-Charles L’Enfant,[1] to be one of his featured, Paris-style arterials.

In other words, a pretty big deal.

The very first inaugural parade did not occur until the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, rode his horse up to the Capitol for his second inauguration in 1805.  The first two chief executives, George Washington and John Adams, had been sworn in up in New York and Philadelphia, respectively, while the new capital city was being built.

Jefferson had also been in town for his first inauguration in 1801, but it was such a humble affair that he simply walked over to the Capitol from his nearby boarding house, took the oath of office, said a few words to a crowd of dozens, and walked back home.  There was no inaugural parade.

Phillip Brooks, a historian who coordinated the National Archives’ collection of papers and artifacts from several inaugurations, told me Jefferson’s second inaugural was a bit more of a public event.

He rode up to Capitol Hill with a couple of friends on horseback.  He didn’t have any particular sort of escort.  But there was an escort leading him back that was made up of mechanics and artisans from the Navy Yard.  And they constituted the first inaugural parade, actually.  It drew a good crowd for the day.  There weren’t all that many people in Washington, of course.  It was a brand-new city.

This is just the Center Market Building.  There were stalls out front, too.  (Library of Congress)

This is just the Center Market Building. There were stalls out front, too. (Library of Congress)

Not long afterwards, Pennsylvania Avenue became Washington’s business corridor.  Presidents-to-be and other notables often stayed at the Indian Queen Hotel, which had slave quarters in the basement.  People came from all over Maryland and Virginia to shop at Center Market, [2]which filled an entire block where the Archives Building stands today.  The famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady set up his portrait studio overlooking it.

But this was well after one of the most raucous inaugural parades, for Andrew Jackson in 1829.  The former army general was the first president elected from what was then “the West” …but was actually just over the Appalachian Mountains.  Phillip Brooks says Jackson’s rough-and-ready supporters flocked to Washington to see their hero take office.

Jackson didn’t want an inaugural parade, Brooks told me . . .

. . . because his wife had just died.  So all of his supporters just followed him and his little procession back to the White House — thousands of them.  And they barged right in.  There had been a reception planned, with big kegs of orange juice, huge wheels of cheese.  And the White House staff expected a very orderly gathering.  Oh, no.  Jackson’s supporters just marched right up the steps and in, muddy boots and all, climbed up on top of the sofas to see the president, generally trashed the place, broke windows to get some air.

Robert Cruikshank titled his 1828 illustration of the Jackson inaugural, in part, "All Creation going to the White House."  (Library of Congress)

The revelers had brought something quite a bit stronger than orange juice.  Tennesseans, including Jackson, liked their whiskey.  He owned several distilleries back home.

Things got so far out of hand at his inaugural melee that his aides had to rescue him, lifting the big man out a window to safety.

William Henry Harrison’s inauguration in 1841 is remembered because the new president spoke to the crowd for one hour, 35 minutes in the bitter cold.  Within a month he was dead of pneumonia.  That inaugural is notable, too, because it featured the first highly choreographed parade.  Floats included a log cabin on wheels.

Other memorable sights in early inaugural parades included a scaled-down model of “Old Ironsides” — the frigate U.S.S. Constitution [3]— on wheels, dressed up as President Buchanan’s “ship of state” in 1857; a grandiose temporary arch built over the avenue for William Garfield’s parade in 1881; and a procession of American Indian chiefs and army “Roughriders” in Teddy Roosevelt’s inaugural parade of 1905.

Montie Montana gets his man.  (Associated Press)

Montie Montana gets his man. (Associated Press)

In 1953, a cowboy named Montie Montana, riding in the inaugural parade, guided his horse over to the presidential reviewing stand while twirling his lasso.  He thrust the lariat forward and perfectly caught the right arm of President Dwight Eisenhower.  The president — though not necessarily his Secret Service bodyguards — delighted in the rope trick.

Pennsylvania Avenue had changed radically by the time John F. Kennedy rode up the Avenue in 1961.  On the south side, a row of neoclassical government buildings called the “Federal Triangle” — massive enough to blot out the sun on the street — had replaced a tough and tawdry neighborhood called “Murder Row.”  But much of the north side had deteriorated into a jumble of liquor stores, pornographic movie houses, and seedy bookstores.

The president’s wife, Jacqueline, was appalled.  She said, “Something really must be done.”  And Kennedy replied, “We’ll see about that.”

A wholesale revitalization of Pennsylvania Avenue began after Mrs.  Kennedy called on President Lyndon Johnson a few days after the funeral of her assassinated husband in 1963.  Her one request of the new president was that he follow through on Kennedy’s plan to spruce up the once-grand boulevard.

The Carters take to the street.  (Library of Congress)

The Carters take to the street. (Library of Congress)

There was plenty of heartburn for the president’s security force in 1977, when Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter hopped out of their limousine and proceeded to walk about half the Inaugural Parade route up the Avenue.

When they got out of the car, just east of the Archives Building, the place went wild:  “He’s walking!  He’s walking!  He’s gonna do it!” people screamed.  It set a precedent.  Every new president and his wife since have taken a stroll during their inaugural parades, at least for a couple of blocks.

There have been isolated protests during inaugurals, notably in 1969, when tear gas lobbed at demonstrators in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, wafted over Richard Nixon in the presidential reviewing stand.

But inaugurals are the closest thing Americans have to a coronation.  Normally, even in these times of fractious partisanship, the country comes together behind the new president, to watch the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to the next.

For one day, anyway.

Suffragists march up the Avenue in 1913.  (Library of Congress)

Suffragists march up the Avenue in 1913. (Library of Congress)

Pennsylvania Avenue has been the chosen route for other parades as well — from presidential funeral processions to military victory parades to marches by suffragists, Ku Klux Klan white supremacists, and military veterans of World War I, seeking bonuses.  But most big Washington parades, save for the inaugural ones, have been moved down a block to quieter Constitution Avenue, which has fewer businesses along it to disrupt.

About 500 years ago, or so it seems, Carol and I wrote a book about Pennsylvania Avenue, which is the only reason I know so much about it.  She had recently started her photography career in the regal Willard Hotel, the “Hotel of Presidents,” on Pennsylvania Avenue, a block from the White House.

It was once quite the place: Julia Ward Howe wrote the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” there while looking down from her window at Union troops, drilling on the Avenue.  Celebrated humorist Mark Twain led his adoring fans on merry chases out the back door, around the block, and back inside.  The term “lobbying” was coined when President Ulysses S. Grant sat at the Willard and patiently listened to citizens who came to ask him for favors.

And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the last lines of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in his Willard room in 1963.

The Wllard, on the right, seen from tranquil Pershing Park, which is right in the middle of the Avenue.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Wllard, on the right, seen from tranquil Pershing Park, which is right in the middle of the Avenue. (Carol M. Highsmith)

But the Willard wasn’t so regal when Carol was shooting there.  The wrecking ball was literally, not figuratively, poised outside when a citizens’ group called “Don’t Tear it Down” saved it, and it was later renovated into a fancy hotel once again.

Some other doings of note in the long life of America’s Main Street:

President Nixon wanted the Willard and other buildings torn down to make room for a great ceremonial square and parade ground.  “Nixon’s Red Square,” critics called it, and the idea went nowhere.  There is a smaller gathering place called “Freedom Plaza” in pretty much the same spot.  A time capsule of Martin Luther King’s effects was buried there after he died, and one of two camps in the “Occupy D.C.” movement is pitched there now.

There’s now a big memorial to four-time president Franklin Delano Roosevelt some distance away, south of the National Mall.  But he never wanted one.  “If they are to put up any memorial to me, I should like it to consist of a block about the size of this,” he said, laying his hand on his desk.  Sure enough, in a city of soaring monuments to presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and others, Roosevelt’s was — until 1997 — a simple granite block on Pennsylvania Avenue.

You see what I mean about the TALL clock tower on the Old Post Office.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

You see what I mean about the TALL clock tower on the Old Post Office. (Carol M. Highsmith)

It never made the guide books or tour spiels of Pennsylvania Avenue, but my favorite story about it took place in another historic building — the gnarled, 1899 Romanesque Old Post Office Building, at the corner of 12th Street N.W. and the Avenue.  It’s known for its spectacular clock tower, reached, the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote, by “an endless Pirenesian fantasia of rickety catwalks and dung-layered spiral staircases.”

Carol photographed it many times and knew some people who worked there.  So for her photography practice’s Christmas card one year, she rounded up her favorite Santa Claus — a dead ringer for St. Nicholas, with a real and magnificent white beard — got him to dress up in his Santa outfit, and headed down to the Post Office Building.

This was August, mind you.  She liked to take the Santa shot early each year.

She sent the little old elf up those dung-layered catwalks to the clock tower, a Washington landmark with one of the best views of the Federal Triangle and National Mall, while she set up below, on the Avenue.

The plan was that St. Nick would lean way out of the tower colonnade and wave.  It would be the perfect Washington Christmas shot.

Santa did so, but just for a second, then disappeared.  Irritated, Carol kept peering upward until a police helicopter appeared, hovering over the tower.  And gun-toting officers in S.W.A.T. gear jumped out of cars all around her, then rushed into the building.

It being August, the authorities had assumed that Santa was a whack job, about to jump off the clock tower and commit suicide.  Carol and St. Nick had to do some fast talking to keep from going to the pokey over that one.  They took the Metro subway home and laughed their heads off.

That, too, must have been a sight in Washington’s steamiest month.

I’ve been talking all this time about only a piece of Pennsylvania Avenue — the 2.3-km (1.4-mile) ceremonial part from the White House to the Capitol.  The street keeps going as an unremarkable boulevard, west to Georgetown and east across the Anacostia River, into Washington’s poorest neighborhood.

The Temperance Fountain.  A block of ice, regrettably, is no longer a feature of it.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Temperance Fountain. A block of ice, regrettably, is no longer a feature of it. (Carol M. Highsmith)

But on the showy part that takes about 25 minutes to stroll, you can check out: • the Cogswell Temperance Fountain, which once spewed refreshing water — a salubrious alternative to Demon Rum — over a block of ice.  • the austere FBI Building, the closest thing we have to a fortress between Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and Virginia’s Fort McNair.  • The massive U.S. Treasury Building, which President Jackson plopped down on the Avenue, right where it makes a dog-leg turn west, blocking the view from the executive mansion to the Capitol.  • Pershing Park, a surprising oasis of foliage, including tulips (or their successors) planted by the beautification-minded First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson.  • And of course the White House, about which President Gerald Ford once cracked, “I lived in Alexandria until I moved into public housing on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

All in all, I reckon, the Avenue has been pondered and poked fun at, sketched and reconfigured, torn up and torn down more than any street in the land.  Now it’s all powdered and pressed and dressed up for the world to come see.  And you don’t need a pass to see any of it.

Inauguration Day at the east end of ceremonial Pennsylvania Avenue is quite a spectacle.  (Library of Congress)

Inauguration Day at the east end of ceremonial Pennsylvania Avenue is quite a spectacle. (Library of Congress)

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Fractious. Irritable, ill-tempered.

Melee. Pronounced MAY-lay, this is a commotion, a confused scene, often involving a scuffle.

Pokey. Slang for “jail,” perhaps a derivation of the old term “pogie poorhouse” — which doesn’t explain what “pogie” meant. Other terms for lockups: slammer, hoosegow, stir, pen (short for penitentiary), big house, joint, and clink.

Raucous. Boisterous, disorderly.

Salubrious. Health-giving.

Spiel. From Yiddish and pronounced “shpeel,” this is a long and energetic story, meant to persuade.

Whack job. Disparaging slang for a mentally unstable person.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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