While Pennsylvania Avenue runs from Maryland into Georgetown, when people speak of Pennsylvania Ave they likely mean the stretch from the Capitol to the White House. The original city plan called for a magnificent throughway linking these two titans of United States government and Pennsylvania Ave became that link. No one is entirely sure why it is named after the Keystone State – having first been called that in a 1791 letter by Thomas Jefferson – but there are two theories. Some think it is to appease Pennsylvania after moving the nation’s government out of Philadelphia, although it is just as likely that the street names at that time were simply applied in order of the state’s geographic location.
Pennsylvania Avenue was Washington's first downtown although starting in the late 19th century it became something of an unseemly place. A major redevelopment of Pennsylvania Ave during the 20th century brought it to the grandeur that was originally envisioned. Regardless of its various conditions, however, Pennsylvania Ave has been the District’s primary parade route. This street has seen numerous Presidential funerals and every Presidential Inaugural Parade since Jefferson’s second inauguration has marched on Pennsylvania Ave (with the exception of President Reagan’s second inauguration, where temperatures were too frigid).
This section of Pennsylvania Ave is easily accessed by the Metro system. On the eastern end – nearer the Capitol – are the Archives/Navy Memorial (Green, Yellow), Gallery Place (Red, Green, Yellow), and Judiciary Square (Red) stations and on the western end – nearer the White House – are the Federal Triangle (Blue, Orange, Silver) and Metro Center (Red, Blue, Orange, Silver) stations.
We start our tour on the eastern end, at the northeast corner of Pennsylvania Ave and 7th St NW, where the simple Grand Army of the Republic Memorial stands. Dedicated in 1909, it is a monument to the once-popular organization of Civil War soldiers. Across 7th St is another statue, this one in tribute to Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, the Army officer best known for his heroics during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Across Pennsylvania Avenue, you can’t help but notice the neoclassic façade of the National Archives, and directly adjacent to the Hancock statue is the United States Navy Memorial. If you were to head east towards the Capitol Building, you would quickly find yourself in front of the Newseum.
Continuing on Pennsylvania Ave the J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Headquarters Building – between 9th and 10th Streets – stands out from its surroundings, but not necessarily in a good way. When designed in the 1960’s, the stylistic preferences of the time won out over the classic architecture of much of Washington, resulting in a poured concrete exterior. In addition, the differing height restrictions of Pennsylvania Ave and E St (behind the building) mean that it looks like the F.B.I. Building is wearing another, smaller building on top of it. Tours of F.B.I. Headquarters were shuttered many years ago, but recently a pilot program has begun for The Education Center, where visitors can learn about the Bureau’s history. Requests must be made 3-4 weeks in advance through a Congressional Office for visits Monday through Thursdays, although keep in mind that this program may cease at any time.
Directly across Pennsylvania Ave from the F.B.I. Building is the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building. The architecture of the Department of Justice blends much more into that of the city, but to discuss that we must first the Federal Triangle. During the 1920’s and 30’s, when Pennsylvania Ave had slipped into disrepair, a plan was developed to revitalize and make better use of the area from the intersection of Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues to 15th St. A Board of Architectural Consultants was appointed and each was given a building to design that would be unique, yet cohesive with the whole. Limestone facades, red-tiled roofs, and classic colonnades are common features of the Triangle.
Further along Pennsylvania Ave, past the Internal Revenue Service headquarters, is the Old Post Office, located at the corner of 12th St. Built between 1892 and 1899, the former headquarters for the U.S. Post Office is the third tallest building in Washington – behind the Washington Monument and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Romanesque Revival structure was one of the cities earlier attempts at redefining Pennsylvania Ave, but has been closed on and off for many years. It is currently undergoing a transformation into a first class Trump International Hotel, which is slated to open in late 2016. The 315-foot tower of the Old Post Office and its 270 foot high observation level will still be maintained by the National Park Service and is expected to reopen in the summer of 2016. In the meantime enjoy the architecture and the statue of Benjamin Franklin – a former postmaster – that sits in front.
At 1300 Pennsylvania Ave is the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, which, at 3.1 million square feet, is the largest structure in Washington (by square footage). The exterior, including the rotunda that is the focal point of the north end, matches the classicism of Federal Triangle, but the interior is airy and modern. The building includes a large food court that is a good lunch stop while touring. The food court is open weekdays from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm, Saturday from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm, and Sunday from noon to 5:00 pm (March 1 through August 31 only).
Crossing to the north side of Pennsylvania Ave you come upon Freedom Plaza, named in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., who developed his “I Have a Dream” speech nearby. The plaza is bookended by a fountain and an equestrian statue of Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish soldier who rose to the rank of general in the Continental Army. In between is a stone map of L’Enfant’s plan for the Pennsylvania Ave area. Freedom Plaza is still a popular spot for gatherings and protests.
North, across the street from Freedom Plaza, is the site of the historic National Theater, which first opened its doors on December 7, 1835. Over the years, the National Theater has been the site of many Presidential Inaugural Balls, the theater where President Lincoln first saw a young actor named John Wilkes Booth, where Sir Winston Churchill spoke in 1900, and where the musicals Show Boat and West Side Story premiered. This is also where the President’s Own United States Marine Band was led by march master John Philip Sousa for 34 years. The amount of celebrity performers that have graced the National Theater’s stage is far too long to list.
As you continue west along Pennsylvania Ave you will see the 1908 John A. Wilson building that houses the District of Columbia government on the corner of 14th St. Between 14th and 15th Streets. Taking the entire block between Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues, is the Herbert C. Hoover Building which is the home of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the White House Visitors Center, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The massive Italian-inspired Renaissance Revival building also formerly housed the National Aquarium in Washington, but the underwhelming museum closed in 2013 and awaits funding for reopening.
Directly west across 14th St from Freedom Plaza is the charming Pershing Park, which contains a square fountain that is used for ice skating in the winter months. The park is named for John J. Pershing, who is also honored with a statue in his namesake park. Pershing was the American Commander in Europe during World War I and later served as Army Chief of Staff.
On the northwest corner of the intersection with 14th Street is the historic Willard Hotel – officially now the InterContinental The Willard Washington DC. The Willard brothers began running an inn on this corner in 1847, expanding several times and eventually becoming the elegant building it is today. The Willard has hosted Charles Dickens, P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill, 10 different U.S. Presidents, and Mark Twain wrote two books at the hotel in the early 20th century.
As you continue on the last bit of Pennsylvania Ave before you get to the White House, you pass right in front of the Greek revival-style U.S. Department of the Treasury building fronted by a statue of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury. The Treasury Building is open for tours, but advance reservations are required and must be made through your Congressional office. Tours are typically available Saturday mornings at 9:00 am, 9:45 am, 10:30 am, and 11:15 am and include offices of former secretaries, the temporary office used by Andrew Johnson following Lincoln’s death, and the Burglar-Proof Vault. The Treasury Department does not produce currency, for those tours visit the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.