Throwing Pa. Avenue A Curve
THE WASHINGTON POST
REDESIGN PROPOSES TO CONNECT WHITE HOUSE LAWN WITH LAFAYETTE
THURSDAY, MAY 23, 1996
Park Service Plans Jeffersonian Look
By Stephen C. Fehr
The National Park Service yesterday proposed reconfiguring the
closed section of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White
House into a curved street, a move deisigned to evoke the
character of the grounds during Thomas Jefferson's presidency.
The design is an attempt to make the best and a less-than
desirable situation, softening the current view af six lanes of
empty asphalt and joining the White House lawn and Lafayette
Square in a common design. President Clinton or ordered the
two-block stretch closed off a year ago because of concerns that the executive
mansion could be susceptible to a car-bomb attack.
After soliciting suggestions from architects, planners and
citizens, the Park Service came up with a $40 million plan that
would transform an area that had been an important cross-town
artery for vehicles into a tree-lined avenue for pedestrians,
with wide footpaths, soothing fountains and less ominous vehicle
"It's people against cars," said Roger Kennedy, director of the
National Park Service. The closing of the street "gives us a
chance to restore this space to the founders' intention of a
public square. . . . This is not so much about the White House
as it is about creating the center of town."
The Park Service's recommendation now goes to the pubic for
comments before the final plan is released in July. It must be
approved by the National Capital Planning Commission. The Fine
Arts Commission and a couple of historical preservation groups,
including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, also
will consider it. After that, administration officials will seek
funds from Congress and private sources.
Because the money hasn't been raised, Park Service officials
could not predict when--or if--the make over would occur. The
Park Service said it will begin replacing the concrete highway
barriers at either end of the closed section of Pennsylvania next
week with planters and guardhouses, a temporary measure until
work can begin on a full redesign.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), among the earliest
opponents of the street closing, said yesterday that she would
try to block congressional funding for the Park Service plan,
which she said would permanently harm downtown Washington.
The avenue's closing has left the downtown area "dysfunctional
and disfigured," Norton said. "Pennsylvania Avenue is not a park.
It is the major downtown east-west artery in the nation's
The permanent plan calls for slightly expanding the north lawn
of the White House with the curve as the central feature. "The
blessing of this plan was the rediscovery of the curve," Kennedy
The eight-foot-high wrought-iron fence between the two north
gates also would be moved north and would be shaped in a curve,
similar to a stone wall that was there during Jefferson's
presidency, from 1801 to 1809. The concrete sidewalk in front of
the fence would be curved, too, and replaced with a brick walk
The curbs on either side of the street would be eliminated,
increasing access for wheelchairs and strollers. Gone, too, would
be the four-foot-high concrete posts along the sidewalk because
vehicular access to the street would be blocked elsewhere.
Embedded in the street in front of the White House would be
famous quotations from presidents. The avenue itself--between
15th and 17th streets NW--would be rebuilt in a light colored
stone. It would be reduced from 84 feet, wide enough for six
lanes of traffic, to about 60 feet, or four lanes. The Inaugural
Parade would continue its route past the White House.
The curved shape and narrower street reduces the scale of
Pennsylvania so that visitors looking down the street from either
of the closed ends are not confronted with a massive slab of
asphalt, planners said. The curve creates a gathering place in
front of the White House, said Susan Spain, leader of the Park
Service's Pennsylvania Avenue design team.
Near each end of the avenue, gatehouses would be built to screen
vehicles. The concrete barriers would be replaced with
four-foot-high black iron posts called bollards. Those same posts
would be erected along H Street to keep vehicles off Jackson and
Madison places and out of the square.
The Park Service plan also calls for a major dressing up of
Lafayette Square, which Kennedy said has become "really shabby."
The deteriorated public restrooms in the square would be
replaced with a new facility on the northwest·side of the square.
The park would get new fountains, benches and chess tables.
Madison and Jackson places, which border the park east and west,
would be closed to vehicles, reduced in width and converted to
pedestrian walks. The major intersections around the White House
perimeter would be repaved in a distinctive material such as
brick and would include an emblem, possibly a star, so that
people know they are entering a special area.
The tour buses that now park along H Street, blocking views,
spewing fumes and obstructing traffic would be required to park
in an undetermined area away from the White House. In this way,
H Street would become the new place for a drive-by view.
Harry G. Robinson III, of Howard University, chairman of a panel
of architects who advised the Park Service, said that wider
entrances leading into Lafayette Square, distinctive pavement
markings and elimination of tour buses would reconnect the White
House area with the rest of the city.
Kennedy said the design would not interfere with the homeless
people and protesters who congregate in Lafayette Square.
Despite recent calls to reopen the street to vehicles, officials
of the Treasury Department, which is responsible for protecting
the president, said they will continue to keep it closed. Park
Service officials said their design reflects that assumption, but
Kennedy said the plan could be changed easily if a future
president decided to reopen the street.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park