Restore Mass Ave has a vision for the two-mile stretch of boulevard that runs from Dupont Circle to Washington National Cathedral, but it’s not a new one. In fact, it’s more than 100 years old.
The plan was inspired by a 1913 photo reproduced on the cover of “A Grand Avenue Revival: Massachusetts Avenue Landscape History and Design Guide,” a booklet the nonprofit group just published. The picture shows a symmetrical double row of American lindens lining both edges of the sidewalk along the north side of the avenue just west of 20th Street.
“A Grand Avenue Revival” was written by Deborah Shapley, the founder and president of Restore Mass Ave (RMA). She is a D.C. native and a longtime resident of the area near Sheridan Circle, at Massachusetts Avenue and 23rd Street.
“I walked up and down a lot, and just got angry that the trees kept dying,” she said during a recent walk through her neighborhood.
Shapley found the 1913 photo in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library’s Washingtoniana collection in 2006, the year she began RMA.
“It inspired everybody,” she said. “So it was easy to find allies.”
The stately, Paris-style “double allee,” probably planted in 1904, was once a tourist attraction, said Robert Nevitt, an RMA board member who accompanied Shapley on the recent tour.
“People came from around the world to see it,” he said.
Since 2006, RMA has brought more than 300 trees to the avenue, and also fought to save existing ones. The new American elms, London plane trees and other species are planted by the city’s urban foresters or Casey Trees, another nonprofit group. Among them are about 75 second, or inner, row trees.
Maintaining the trees is more challenging than getting them planted, Shapley and Nevitt said. Regular watering is required, and RMA relies on property owners — including the avenue’s many embassies — to take care of the trees.
“Where there’s no local curator, we don’t try to arrange trees,” Shapley said.
Sometimes, more arduous work such as “air-spading” is needed.
“It’s a great technique,” said Nevitt, who has employed it. “Compressed air goes down through a spade, and it aerates under the soil. It’s great for the tree. It lets a lot of water in. But the process throws clouds of dirt and dust up in the air. It’s a really dirty job.
“If anyone suggests you do it, say, ‘Maybe later,’ ” he added with a laugh.
The area nearest Dupont Circle contains what Shapley called “most of our biggest problem children.” That’s because trees there are most likely to be damaged by heavy pedestrian traffic, crowds that congregate at bus stops or merchandise stacked for the weekly farmers market.
“The main point is that to get a majestic landscape, we have to persist to get these trees growing to maturity,” she said. “Because in too many jurisdictions, the city will brag about having planted X number of trees. The issue is, do they make it?”
RMA members would like to see a full double row of trees along Embassy Row. The goal, Shapley said, is: “You stop treating the public space as individual little yards, and you start making one view.”
This is technically possible, because the land nearest the sidewalk is city property, known as “parking.” The D.C. government could require that structures built there since that 1913 photo be removed to make way for trees. But that is unlikely to happen, Shapley said.
“The history of that parking is that they only take it back and start dictating when it’s a safety or utility issue. So the city would not take this back,” she said, referring to the paved, treeless area in front of the Embassy Row Hotel, which is under renovation. “But in today’s city environment, they would be much more mindful of requiring that there be more pervious space. It would not be done like this today.”
Although RMA is focused on one stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, Shapley noted, the work the group has done is relevant to other parts of the city.
“One point that needs to be made is that anybody can do this. On our Web site it says, ‘Discover your street.’ You don’t have to have a fancy, Beaux Arts, Parisian historic view.
“The key is to figure out what people will go for together,” she added. “So this really is for everyone.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
For information about Restore Mass Ave, visit its Web site at www.restoremassave.org.