Pennsylvania Avenue—America’s Main Street from brothels to brutalism


Pennsylvania Avenue was included in Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the new United States capital and one of the first streets constructed in Washington, DC. The main stretch of the avenue, from the White House to the US Capitol Building, is regularly used for a wide variety of ceremonial and protest purposes, ranging from the annual Capital Pride celebration to the quadrennial presidential inaugural procession from the swearing in ceremony at the Capitol to the main VIP viewing stand in front of the White House.

With planning begun in 1926, the expanding US Government constructed what is now known as Federal Triangle on land bordered by Pennsylvania Avenue and Constitution Avenue just east of the White House. This land at the time was known as Murder Bay, given its propensity for flooding and its association with extensive crime, including numerous brothels. The architectural style selected for the federal complex derived from the City Beautiful movement and largely consisted of Neoclassical design, complete with red-tiled roofs.

In the 1960s and early ‘70s, the FBI Headquarters was constructed in phases from 1967 to 1975 in the brutalist architectural style, in stark contrast to the architecture of Federal Triangle directly across the avenue. In 1972, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation was created to coordinate the rehabilitation of the remainder of the avenue’s development between the White House and the US Capitol which has led to extensive development of office, retail, and restaurant spaces amongst many memorials leading to a lively street scene in the heart of downtown Washington.

The FBI Building has long been controversial in its design, with numerous calls for its demolition. In recent years, however, the FBI was considering moving its headquarters from the brutalist building, not because of its architecture but because of the extensive maintenance needs and the growth of the FBI making the existing headquarters inadequate. The General Services Administration, the US federal government’s real estate arm, has been conducting site searches for a new FBI Headquarters building in DC and the surrounding suburbs. The relatively recent growth in popularity of and advocacy for the preservation of brutalist architecture then led to a great deal of discussion and debate about the fate of the building itself once the FBI moved out to its new headquarters. Although the GSA was close to making a final site selection, most likely in the suburbs of Washington, the GSA recently cancelled its plans for a new FBI Headquarters citing lack of sufficient funds.

The on-going debate about the role of brutalism on America’s “Main Street” in the form of the FBI Building, perhaps now is a good time to review what Pennsylvania Avenue was like before the FBI. (Photo of Pennsylvania Avenue, with Federal Triangle on the right and the FBI Building on the left, by UPStateNYer, used here under CC BY-SA 3.0).

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Check out what the FBI Building site used to look like

By Mark Eckenwiler

Greater Greater Washington

July 21, 2017

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