Pennsylvania Avenue is a street in Washington, D.C. joining the White House and the United States Capitol. Called "America's Main Street," it is the location of official parades and processions, as well as protest marches and civilian protests. Moreover, Pennsylvania Avenue is an important commuter route and is part of the National Highway System.
Laid out by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, Pennsylvania Avenue was one of the earliest streets constructed in the federal city. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson considered the Avenue an important feature of the new capital. After inspecting L'Enfant's plan, President Washington referred to the thoroughfare as a "Grand Avenue". Jefferson concurred, and while the "grand avenue" was little more than a wide dirt road, he planted it with rows of fast growing Lombardy poplars. The symbolically important street was named for Pennsylvania as consolation for moving the capital from Philadelphia. From 1862 to 1962, streetcars ran the length of the avenue from Georgetown to the Anacostia River.
Although Pennsylvania Avenue extends seven miles, the expanse between the White House and the Capitol constitutes the ceremonial heart of the nation. Washington called this stretch "most magnificent & most convenient" and it has served the country well. At one time, Pennsylvania Avenue provided an unobstructed view between the White House and the Capitol. The construction of an expansion to the Treasury Building blocked this view and supposedly President Andrew Jackson did this on purpose. Relations between the president and Congress were strained and Jackson did not want to see the Capitol out his window, though in reality the Treasury Building was simply built on what was cheap government land.
Ever since an impromptu procession formed around Jefferson's second inauguration, every United States president except Ronald Reagan has paraded down the Avenue after taking the oath of office (Reagan paraded down the avenue for his first inauguration, in 1981, but not for the second in 1985 because of freezing temperatures which high winds made dangerous). From William Henry Harrison to Gerald Ford the funeral corteges of seven of the eight presidents who died in office and two former presidents followed this route. Franklin Roosevelt was the only president who died in office whose cortege didn't follow this route. Lyndon B. Johnson and Ford were the former presidents whose funeral cortege followed this route. For LBJ, it was along the route from the Capitol to the National City Christian Church, where he worshipped often, because the funeral was held there. Ford's went down Pennsylvania Ave., because it paused at the White House en route to the Washington National Cathedral, where the funeral was held. Abraham Lincoln's funeral cortege solemnly proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1865; only weeks later the end of the American Civil War had been celebrated when the Army of the Potomac paraded more joyously down the street.
Not just the scene of official functions, Pennsylvania Avenue is the traditional parade and protest route of ordinary citizens. During the depression of the 1890s, for example, Jacob Coxey marched 500 supporters down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol to demand federal aid for the unemployed. Similarly, on the eve of Woodrow Wilson's 1913 inauguration, Alice Paul masterminded a parade highlighting the women's suffrage movement. In July 1932, a contingent of the Bonus Expeditionary Force carried flags down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House where they planned to form picket lines. Pennsylvania Avenue also has served as a background for more lighthearted celebrations, including a series of day and nighttime Shriner's parades in the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1965, portions of the street and surrounding area were designated the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site. The National Park Service administers this area which includes the United States Navy Memorial, Old Post Office Tower, and Pershing Park.
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Secret Service closed the portion of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to vehicular traffic. Pedestrian and bicycle traffic, however, was still permitted. After the September 11, 2001 attacks this policy was made permanent. Near the White House, traffic is redirected to H Street or Constitution Avenue both of which eventually link back with Pennsylvania Avenue. Plans drafted by District officials after the September 11th attacks call for Pennsylvania Avenue downtown being used as a dividing line for any mass evacuation of the city. People north of the avenue would be directed north while those south of the avenue would be directed south. No vehicles would be allowed to cross the avenue.
In 2002, the National Capital Planning Commission invited several prominent landscape architects to submit proposals for the redesign of Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House, with the intention that the security measures would be woven into an overall plan for the precinct and a more welcoming public space might be created. The winning entry by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., Landscape Architects proposed a very simple approach to planting, paving, and the integration of security measures. Construction was completed in 2004.
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