D.C. police issued a $5 jaywalking ticket to a renowned urban designer after a car sent him hurtling through the air as he crossed a busy Washington street.
Charles Atherton, 73, the former longtime secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts who oversaw the design of major monuments and federal buildings, was in critical condition yesterday after he was hit Thursday night while crossing rain-slicked Connecticut Avenue NW.
The collision's force, witnesses said, caused Atherton to fly out of his shoes and left him crumpled on the road, bleeding from his head and nose after his head smashed into the windshield.
Before paramedics rushed him to the hospital, police issued Atherton the ticket, which his family found among his belongings when they visited him at George Washington University Hospital.
"He was issued a ticket because he was at fault. That's all I can tell you," said Lt. John Kutniewski of the police department's major crash investigation unit.
Police said that Atherton caused the accident by crossing the street mid-block, just south of the Uptown movie theater in Cleveland Park.
Kutniewski, who was not at the scene immediately after the 7:30 p.m. accident, said that officers later told him that Atherton was conscious when he received the summons.
"If he's outside the crosswalk, he would be at fault," he said.
Michael Baker, a communications consultant who was a few yards away when the accident occurred, was among the first to reach Atherton. "At one point, we were trying to get him to respond, and it was unclear if he was trying to respond or maybe drowning in blood," he said. "I think he was having a difficult time breathing. He never said anything. He couldn't speak, and he wouldn't respond when we pinched his hand."
Baker said he overheard a police officer "reassuring" the driver involved in the accident that she was not at fault. She had been headed south on Connecticut.
On the face of it, Baker said, it may seem "offensive" that Atherton was ticketed, but he believed that the officers were seeking to establish liability. "It seemed primarily to assuage her," he said of the driver. "She was just distraught. She was wailing for 45 minutes."
For 40 years until his 2004 retirement, Atherton was secretary at the commission, a panel appointed by the president that reviews and advises the federal government on issues related to architecture and design in the nation's capital.
Atherton reviewed countless proposed monuments and projects, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National World War II Memorial. He started at the commission in 1960 as an assistant secretary.
"He was there for the formation of so much of the city," said Thomas Luebke, the commission's current secretary who replaced Atherton. "He has been an institution in the development of Washington as far as I can remember."
Earlier this year, the American Institute of Architects awarded Atherton its Thomas Jefferson Award. In granting the honor, the jury wrote that Atherton's "influence on works of public architecture and maintaining quality architecture and planning in our nation's capital is reminiscent of Mr. Jefferson's own commitment to the built environment."
Don Myer, who worked under Atherton for 30 years, described him as "very politically astute about how things have to get done" and said that he was an early proponent of historic preservation in Washington. "He was passionate about protecting height limits and tree coverage," Myer said.
A native of Kingston, Pa., Atherton lives in Cleveland Park and has two sons and a daughter.
A widower since the death of his wife, Mary, in 1993, Atherton liked to eat in restaurants on Connecticut Avenue.
His daughter, Sarah, 35, said she was puzzled by the police version of the accident. "Dad always felt strongly about crossing at intersections," she said.
He was particularly careful, she said, after a friend was killed while crossing Connecticut Avenue.
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Meg Smith contributed to this report.