Street at a Crossroads
The Right Direction on Pennsylvania Avenue
By Benjamin Forgey
The National Park Service is to be applauded, up to a point, for
the plan it unveiled this week to accommodate the closing of
Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.
Honoring the three fundamental attributes of the place--the
house, the street, the park--the plan calls for modest, fitting
The White House front yard is enlarged ever so slightly and
Lafayette Square reduced by a correspording amount. In between is
a narrowed, curbless "avenue" for waiters, distinguished by an
elegant curve. The three pieces retain their identities, yet they
form a more gracious, inviting whole--possibly, in the vision of
advocates, a "town square" for both the city and nation.
Still, we are talking about two cheers, not three. There is bad
news along with the good.
May 20, 1995, when President Clinton abruptly closed the avenue
between 15th and 17th streets NW to vehicular traffic, was not a
good day. The security concerns were, and are, real--a bomb
exploding on the avenue with the force of the Oklahoma City blast
would decimate the White House--but shutting down the "nation's
main street" was a drastic step.
Symbolically, the action widened the distance between the leader
of the democracy and the people he was elected to lead. This gap
has been growing year by year, and most of us accept it as the
unfortunate price of keeping the president alive. But the
barriers blocking off the big street are vivid, dailly reminders
of just how deeply forced segregation cuts against the grain of
our system of government.
And, in practical terms, closing off so major a street with so
little forethought was bound to have bad effects on the city of
Washington. (Actually, 1 1/2 streets were shut down--west-bound
traffic on State Place and I Street south of the White House also
was curtailed.) Opinions vary about just how bad the effects are,
but there is no question that it has seriously hindered east-west
trafiic flow. This is no negligible technicality-movement from
one place to another is the very life-blood of cities.
So it was evident from Day One that it would take creative
thinking to salvage something good from a bad situation. The
Park Service plan takes us at least part of the way.
One of the best things about it is a step that was not taken.
Despite early appeals from some in the design community, there
was no open, national competition to redesign the whole area.
This idea had a certain superficial appeal, but was mischievous
in the extreme. There simply was no need to treat the White
House lawn, the avenue and Lafayette Square as if they needed
What was needed, rather, was some skillful adjusting to give the
area north of the White House a cohesive identity, and this is
what the new plan does with some success. It is something that
California architect John Carl Warnecke has been saying for a
long time - he began thinking about the area more than three
decades ago when he helped devise a plan to save the 19th-century
buildings around Lafayette Square. Through the specifics of the
Park Service plan are not Warnecke's, it owes much to him in
The new plan's one big gesture - that curve in the avenue -
accomplishes a lot. It preserves the roadway (narrowed by 20
feet) for inaugural parades. There's also a possibility for
future automobile traffic - though at Wednesday's news conference
Park Service Director Roger Kennedy discouraged such a thought.
At the same time, the curve gives this particular slice of the
avenue an appropriate, distinguished new identity. And by
gracefully extending the White House lawn while picking up the
curvlinear geometries of Lafayette Square, it goes a long way
toward tying together the lawn, the street and the park.
The park itself, though not greatly altered, is subtly improved..
The crucial north-south axis, a feature of Pierre L'Enfant's
original city plan, is reinforced with wider walkways and a
couple of long rectangular pools of water north and south of the
equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson. Madison and Jackson Place
are narrowed and freed of both moving and parked cars - a long
overdue change. Security barriers - black-painted metal posts
anchored deep in the ground - promise to be quite handsome.
Another of the plan's basic aims is "to connect thsi special
White House district ni very special ways to the city of
Wahsington," said Harry G. Robinson III, the Howard University
architecture dean who headed up a design workshop on the issue
last December. Hence there is a proposal to extend the design
themes several blocks beyond the immediate area with distinctive
tree plantings, pavement materials and motifs - such as stars
embedded in the crosswalks.
This is fine as far as it goes, but for the area to truly catch
on - toconnect with the city in more vital ways - a lot more will
Let's face it, the Lafayette Square area is pretty dull. The
architecture and the park are nice, and there are a couple of
museums, but it's mostly a quiet office compound. Even tourists
bisiting the White House tend to skip the square - like the
office workers, they go elsewhere to buy, eat and be entertained.
Obviously, this is not a condition that is easy to change, but it
is worrisome that, in presenting the new plan,nobody confronted
the issue. Good design, though absolutely essential, is not in
itself enough. Making the area livelier will take lively
thinking, and the kind of federal-local coordination not yet in
The federal government, for example, should consider putting
something else besides offices in those restored 19th-century
town houses - renting them to restaurants, perhaps, or
appropriate kinds of stores, or educational facilities. Maybe
there ought to be a bandstand, with regular concerts bythe
military bands. Frequent historical rours of Lafayette Square
would be a hit. More and better chess tables...or something!
Of course, the subject of automobile traffic must be addressed,
althought he feds, irresponsibly, don't like to talk about it.
At the very lease, it is clear that alternative east-west routes
must be found. Reopening E Street to west-bound traffic is one
good possibility - a study by architect-engineer Joseph
Passonneau demonstrates that this is possible with just a few,
simple, non-threatening adjustments.
Then again, reopening the closed segment of Pennsylvania Avenue
to at least limited traffic remains a possibility. But it is not
something that can or should be done lightly. Security cannot be
allowed to dominate all other issues, but it cannot be ignored.
In this case, the safety of the president and his family is a
These and other issues are sure to be aired mroe thoroughly now
that there is a definite plan. Congress, after all, will be
asked to pay for it. The challenge today, as it was last May, is
to treat this as an opportunity to improve the city. The Park
Service has made a good beginning.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park