Four years ago President Reagan made the inspired request that the inaugural ceremonies take place on the West Front of the Capitol so that, giving his inaugural address, he could look directly down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Avenue of the Presidents, to the White House. Save for the bitterly cold weather, the scene would have been repeated today.
There is more than a better view involved here. L'Enfant's plan for the city of Washington is a kind of diagram of the Constitution. "Congress's house" on Capitol Hill is at the center. North, west, east, south divide there; all avenues radiate from it.
This was the Founders' understanding of the way things would be. The Constitution clearly assumes the legislative as the dominant branch of government. However, there was also to be a president, and his "house" had to be located in the scheme of things. The legislative and executive branches of government were to be separated, but connected. This was to be a new kind of government, and its arrangement had to be made clear. This is what the Avenue does.
So at least it appeared to John F. Kennedy as he drove down Pennsylvania Avenue on Jan. 20, 1961. More precisely, waving first to the left then to the right, and looking hard at downtown Washington for what was most likely the first time in his life, he saw that the area was all but derelict. It was not a slum; no one lived there. It was simply a setting of used-up buildings that had been or were being abandoned, as downtown floated out Connecticut Avenue, leaving the Capitol behind.
Later that afternoon, Kennedy raised the subject with Arthur J. Goldberg, his new secretary of labor. JFK, who always knew just a little bit more than was necessary, knew of Goldberg's almost fastidious propriety in public matters. L'Enfant's design of the Capitol was a public matter. Can't we do something? said the new president.
Just under a quarter-century later, we have indeed done something, and done it well. It is a tale worth telling.
Goldberg's opportunity came during the third or fourth meeting of the Kennedy Cabinet. The discussion of foreign policy paused for a moment, and attention turned to the then second most pressing matter in government, which was office space. In truth, government building had all but stopped with the Depression, the Pentagon being the notable exception. Agencies fought over space in the temporary buildings put up on the Mall during World War I. And so a Cabinet committee on office space was formed. Goldberg was chairman; I was to do the drafting.
Appended so as to seem an afterthought to the committee's report was a recommendation for development of plans to revive Pennsylvania Avenue. In short order, the President's Committee on Pennsylvania Avenue was at work. We had no official status; not so much as a presidential letter. But we had allies in the White House in Fred Holborn and, most of all, in Bill Walton, who may have been the president's best friend. Besides, it was a time friendly to new enterprises.
The committee's charge was that Pennsylvania Avenue should be "lively, friendly and inviting," as well as dignified and symbolic. For this purpose we chose as chairman the most lively, friendly and inviting architect on earth, Nathaniel Alexander Owings of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. His first decision was: no new government buildings on the Avenue. The Cabinet committee had vaguely suggested that these be used to help rebuild the north side of the Avenue.
Owings wanted hotels, restaurants, opera, trees, people. The FBI building was already under way, but he got J. Edgar Hoover to move it back 50 feet to make room for trees.
The Center for the Performing Arts that President Eisenhower had proposed was getting nowhere. The White House agreed to break it up into three buildings and string them along the Avenue. GSA said we could have the Post Office, and Owings' second decision was not to tear it down.
And so it went; very much a hands-on thing. Most of the plan was drawn up on streetcorners or in barrooms. He talked Congress into letting him build the reflecting pool at the foot of Capitol Hill. He discovered that Mills' patent office (now the National Portrait Gallery) on 8th Street was about to be knocked down, and clung to it as to life itself. L'Enfant had located a future National Cathedral there. We had built a patent office instead, which was not far off. It sits astride 8th Street, looking south at the National Archives (which is notched in from the Avenue so as to face true north in return). The setting was perfect for a great "transverse" of things flowing into the Avenue as well as along it.
In a year and a half, the plan was done. This was no sketch. It was a proper book done in great detail, accompanied by a superb model still on display in the great hall of the Smithsonian.
Kennedy loved it and determined to do it. Great rulers build great architecture. He had both in mind. So far as I know, the last instruction he gave before leaving for Dallas was that on his return, congressional leaders be invited for coffee at the White House to view the model. On Nov. 22, 1963, Walton, Charles Horsky and I were meeting for lunch at Walton's house to discuss this meeting when the White House switchboard rang.
With that, it became something that had to be done. President Johnson wasn't sure about it all, but that didn't stop us. President Nixon was all for it, and getting in the spirit knocked down the "tempos" on the Mall and commissioned Owings to design Constitution Gardens there. In time, Congress created the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, and there was no looking back.
Twenty-four years later everything is either in place or in process. Some grand new buildings have risen, most notably the East Wing of the National Gallery. Some grand old buildings have been or are being restored: the Old Post Office (to be followed by the old Old Post Office, also by Mills, next to the Portrait Gallery); Apex Liquor (now Sears World Trade); and, of special meaning to our band, the Temperance Fountain outside it, which we swore would be preserved for Owings, who swore off the stuff in order to get on with the work that consumed the last two decades of his life. I wish he had lived to see the best site of all, at the foot of the Hill, chosen by Canada for its new chancery. But then I wish John F. Kennedy had lived also.
But mostly I wish President Reagan a great day, with perhaps just a moment's thought for a predecessor who cared so much about this city and the government around which it is built.