Making Washington republican

May 14, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- since Jefferson, the politician most Jeffersonian in intellectual breadth and depth -- recently traveled to the University of Virginia, a monument to Jefferson's architectural genius, to deliver a lecture about civic architecture, a subject inseparable from another one -- the nature of our republic. The story Senator Moynihan told, concerning the transformation of Pennsylvania Avenue, is of an almost-completed success story, for which the nation should thank him, and then demand completion.

When in 1789 Pierre L'Enfant asked George Washington for a commission to design "the Capital of this vast Empire" -- "empire," indeed, at a time when 80 percent of Americans lived within 20 miles of Atlantic tidewater, Manifest Destiny was already on some minds -- the District of Columbia posed a problem: Hitherto, the world's great public architecture had glorified dynasties. How to capture, in form and stone, a republic's public philosophy?

A good start -- call the style stately simplicity -- was made with the Capitol that slowly rose on Jenkins Hill, and with the President's House (called the White House after paint covered damage done when the British burned it). Both buildings were, as Senator Moynihan says, "works of architectural conviction and political statement." But what of the street that ran from one to the other, and should be the Republic's grand boulevard?

It was not macadamized until the 1830s. Pigs rooted in it, as well as in Washington's teeming alleys when Lincoln governed. The city remained a Southern town, governed -- well, controlled -- by Congress, well into the 20th century.

However, in 1893 interest in civic architecture was kindled by Chicago's Columbian Exhibition. Almost half the American people visited it. Suddenly a nation instructed by Jefferson to regret cities as inimical to republican virtues had a vision of what Senator Moynihan calls "the City Beautiful, a Periclean vision of the city and the citizen."

Washington's Mall soon reflected the influence of the Chicago model, but Pennsylvania Avenue languished. In 1961 President Kennedy's Inaugural Parade passed down an avenue on which, Senator Moynihan remembers, the only establishments open after dark were a hotel, a restaurant and Apex Liquors at 7th Street, in the building that once held Mathew Brady's photography studio, where Lincoln sat for his last portrait.

Riding in the parade, Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg was depressed by the decrepit pawnshops, taverns, souvenir shops, secondhand clothing stores -- and by the utter absence of residential buildings. Kennedy named Goldberg chairman of a committee to make something worthy of the sobriquet "Avenue of Presidents."

Much responsibility fell to a Goldberg assistant, young Moynihan. He orchestrated the production of a plan for the avenue, and on Nov. 21, 1963, Kennedy directed that a coffee hour be scheduled so he could brief congressional leaders on the plan when he returned from Dallas.

Days later, when President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Jacqueline Kennedy what he could do for her, she mentioned the Pennsylvania Avenue project. Through four decades, one great constant has been Senator Moynihan's attention to the avenue on which he now lives. The man from New York has been integral to the transformation of Washington from, as he says, a mere "place-other-than-New York" into a great capital shaping, and shaped by, the Republic's culture.

That republican style can be seen on today's vibrant and majestic Pennsylvania Avenue, where people live amidst buildings symbolizing the distinctive beauty of popular government, confirms Jefferson's statement that "design activity and political thought are indivisible." But one thing remains to be done to make the avenue expressive of confident republicanism.

Not the least scandal of recent years, and a suitable symbol of the current vulgarians' incomprehension of public dignity, is the desecration of the portion of Pennsylvania Avenue that passes between the White House and Lafayette Park. Since 1995, that portion has been a hideous jumble of concrete barriers that close the avenue. The White House now presents to the world the clenched face of a bunker.

The excuse for this is, of course, security, as imperially defined by the Secret Service (1963 budget, $7 million; 2000 budget, $800 million). A president worthy of the Avenue of Presidents will reopen it.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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