John Woodbridge and Pennsylvania Avenue are rather like Moses and the Promised Land. Woodbridge has been a glimpse of Pennsylvania Avenue as a grand tree-canopied promenade bordered by fine old buildings and grand new clusters of houses. But he isn't sticking around to see it completed.
Woodbridge has resigned as executive director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., after 15 years (off and on) of worrying about the avenue. He will continue as a consultant.
"The design is finished, they don't need an architect now as much as a hard-driving developer/bureaucrat," he said.
He and his wife, poet Carolyn Kizer, are going back to Berkeley, where he will practice architecture.
For the moment though, as he says goodbye he is willing to talk about where things stand on the avenue, though some matters are still at such delicate stages of negotiation that they can only be hinted at.
"There are at least three major firms clamoring to remodel and run the Willard as a luxury-class, European-style grand hotel: Oliver Carr and Intercontinental: MAT Associates, Trust House and Forter; and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Hotel Chain," he said.
"Garfinckel's is interested in a proposal we've made for a golden or rather glass gate - a bridge over F Street between the Willard and the department store. It would make a ceremonial entryway to F Street.
"The National Archives hopes to get congressional approval for a great archival storage space across the avenue from their present building. They are very enthusiastic. That's good because the underground storage the Archives needs would be the foundation, actually and financially, for the hillside of houses we hope to build on that site.
"It's all moving so much faster than we expected. Private developers are really interested."
Woodbridge says that though the "formalists think I've sold out and the conservationists think we're not saving enough.I think the plan we have now is by far the best we could do. For one thing, it's a flexible plan, and its leaves room for changing architectural styles. If in the next century, they'd like to do things differently, well, we've left them the latitude."
Woodbridge was chief of design for the president's Advisory Council on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1963 and first staff director of the President's Temporary Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue from 1965 to 1966.
As such, he was responsible for the first grandiose plan for the avenue under the chairmanship of architect Nat Owings. The design would have removed most of the old buildings such as the Willard, the Old Post Office and the former Evening Star building in favor of a national square.
"I take the blame for it," Woodbridge said. "It wasn't rational. What happened was we had a group of famous architects for the council. The staff would put up things for them to knock down. I would try to build from the small areas of agreement. The National Square was the last piece, all their little axes pounded into one.
"One day, we sketched it quickly and put it up on the wall. I woke up the next morning, worrying. 'What have we done?' That was the way we worked in the '60s, planning was all done by the 'Big Idea,' without much thought about who would have to be relocated or what the impact would be on people's lives.
"I think God now, that it never came to pass. But I remember thinking then, 'Don't worry, it won't ever get built.'"
"We had all the preliminary work ready, to present to President Kennedy. I had gone back to California, and I heard about the assassination on the radio. We knew then it was over.
"It was because of Lady Bird that the avenue development idea was revived, but then came in Vietnamese war.We picked up on it again in 1973, when I came back as executive director of the corporation. By then architects and planners had lost faith in new buildings as the answer to everything. And the cost figures had changed in favor of remodeling.
"Still, I'm not sorry for our hyper-grandiose scheme. It focused attention on the problem. Even if it was too big ever to be built, it shocked everybody into attention to the problem. I think the new plan will give us the best of all possible worlds.
Woodbridge, who collaborated on two guide books to the architecture of San Francisco and Northern California, thinks the new federal buildings along the Mall are not as good as the old.
"The Smithsonian castle is the best. The Museum of History and Technology is the worst. I'm not happy about the new L.M. Pei National Gallery annex.The scale is wrong. It's a nice bit of sculpture, but I don't think it works as a building in that site.
Every day, Woodbridge has walked from his home on Capitol Hill to his office down the avenue "a piece." "It's noisy, dirty and unpleasant. I think the Street for People bit over on F Street is a disaster.
"But we already have Hideo Sasaki as our coordinator on landscaping. He's very good. So I have forward to the day when I can walk down the avenue, on a wide sidewalk, sheltered by a canopy of trees. Those rows of trees - Jefferson proposed them long ago - will bring it all together, and give us at last, our grand avenue."