( Originally Published 1922 )
When Commodore Decatur left his home near the White House before dawn one morning, to go to breakfast with Commodore Bainbridge, who was in a few hours to be his second in the fatal duel with Commodore Barron —how easily one may drop into the European habit of rolling titles one upon another!—he followed in the faint light of the coming morning the whole length of our Appian Way. One pictures him busy with thoughts of breakfast and dueling, swinging down the road with all the dash of his "right or wrong, my country ! " This lonely hurry of Decatur, in the vague half light of coming day, has always seemed to me one of the most striking of the teeming associations of our national thorough-fare; Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol being called our Appian Way because almost every American, well known in any walk of life, political, literary, legal, artistic, ministerial, mechanical, managerial, and uncountable millions of the not well known, have followed this road between the White House and the Capitol.
Pennsylvania Avenue in both directions extends beyond the mile and a half of the so called Appian Way. On the far side of the Capitol it goes as far as the Anacostia. In the other direction, beyond the White House it taps Georgetown. But it is the portion between the Capitol and White House that is fittingly given the old Roman name.
In the earliest days, before the road was anything but a trail, George Washington himself used to follow it. Jefferson planted it with lines of poplar trees. Since then millions have followed its length, including not only Americans from every State in the Union but great numbers of foreigners from every part of the world.
Inaugural processions, the mighty parade of the armies at the close of the Civil War, statesmen, generals, Presidents, men on evil errands or good: men and women walking, riding, driving, on foot, on horseback, in carriages, in street cars, in motorcars.: and it is no jest to add, in airplanes.
Rome still has its Appian Way and it may be followed through the purple haze that makes mysterious the ancient ruins. London has its Appian Way, now known as Watling Street, along which the greatest men of the world have gone throughout the centuries : Julius Caesar himself, Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, statesmen, poets, generals, kings, even poor little David Copperfield, running away from the bottling works, and Dickens himself. And Dickens was one of the many millions who have gone over this American highway.
Necessarily it is far from being as old as those roads at London or Rome; but after all age is but comparative. London is not so old as Rome: Washington is not so old as London: but each city has won its place in the history of the world, and even this American Appian Way has in its century and a quarter of existence gathered about it a hazy atmosphere as of a distant past.
It was Thomas Jefferson, man of so many flashes of inspiration, who, in the early days of the city, termed this road the Appian Way, for he saw even then its unique importance of situation and use.
Leaving the White House and the enormous ungainly State, War, and Navy Building adjoining, and you find on your right the huge and positively beautiful Treasury Building. How superbly de-signed ! Classic in every detail, with great pillars, with a colonnade of stately Ionic columns, with great pediments, and broad sweeps of stone steps, with hundreds of rooms, it is in all a splendid and imposing building.
It is unfortunate in its location, in that it stands forever—if one may dare to use the word "for-ever !"—a mighty structure immediately between the White House and Capitol at the very beginning of the Appian Way, cutting off the view which these two buildings were intended to have of each other.
A little variation would have obviated the fault: but it was in the time of Czar-minded Andrew Jackson, and he was as impatient and arbitrary as the Russian Czar who, irritated regarding the line of a rail-way that was to be built, marked a straight line, and said curtly "Follow that." And Jackson, impatient of delay as to locating and beginning, struck his cane upon the ground with a peremptory "Put it here"! And here it was put. And, although not altogether the best relative location, it is a location which at least gives the building splendid prominence. And, if anything, superb though the main front is, there is in some respects somewhat more of charm, and quite as much of splendid dignity, in the front facing southward.
It is from the southern front that Pennsylvania Avenue goes on its Appian Way. Here it is that the mistake of location as to this building is apparent, for at the very beginning of the thorough-fare far down here, cut off by the Treasury, there is much of the unattractive, the insignificant, amazing to be found, so close to the White House.
Immediately north of this vicinity is a group of hotels, two of them bearing names known for generations in Washington hotel life. One is the Willard. The Willards—there were several of them—came to Washington through a curious circumstance. There was a hotel, not entirely a success, built by one of the Tayloe family, distinguished Southerners, near the White House. Odd, how many distinguished families go in for hotels ! But then, the dukes, especially Westminster and Bedford, have long been doing it in London: perhaps are doing it even yet.
Mrs. Tayloe was a Northern woman: she remembered the steward in charge of the dining room of one of the Hudson River steamers. He was written for: he came : he used to stand, white aproned, at the head of the table, and carve. He sent for his brothers: and Willard thus became a well-known name among hotel keepers of Washington.
And when a Willard's Hotel arose, there was a gathering of a hundred or so distinguished men, and the exclusive New Englander, Edward Everett, made a speech, in appreciation of the good work done by the principal brother, the one of the steam-boat: Everett declaring that it was not an occasion for Mr. Willard to return thanks for the honor of their gathering, but for them to return thanks to him. And he recalled that, among those dead and gone who had benefited by Willard's hotel activities and purveying, had been such men as Chief Justice Marshall, John Quincy Adams, Calhoun, Clay and Webster. Gastronomic devotion was not taken carelessly by the statesmen of those days!
In early years, Pennsylvania Avenue was but little of a pathway of any kind. It was mainly a deep morass covered with alder bushes. Shortly before the Capitol was reached, the road, or marshy trail, was crossed by a little stream—large, in rainy weather, and even at the present time existent but piped away in safety. It was known as the Tiber and it is generally believed, though personally I doubt it, that it bore that classic name before the Capitol was ever thought of. It is on the L'Enfant map by this name, but that does not prove when or by whom it was named. The little stream at times gave complete impassibility to the trail, and it has been told that not infrequently Congressmen, arriving on horseback, have tied their horses to branches and scrambled precariously over fallen trees. Bulfinch, the architect, somewhere writes of the "vale" between Capitol and White House. Others have re-corded that skiffs were at times actually rowed on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Even as late as when Dickens came to America, the avenue was often very muddy indeed, an avenue difficult to travel. Dickens did not see the future : he told of spacious avenues that began in nothing and led nowhere; he saw streets whose only want, so he declared sarcastically, was houses, roads and in-habitants. He was practically as short-sighted as Tom Moore, who jibed at "this embryo capitol where Fancy sees squares in morasses, obelisks in trees."
Where the tall Raleigh Hotel now stands, there stood in the Civil War days, an earlier hotel distinguished above its fellows by the fact, that there Andrew Johnson was hastily sworn in as President on the April night after Lincoln's death.
Just at the edge of Pennsylvania Avenue between Seventh and Ninth Streets is Center Market. It is altogether disproportionate to its actual importance, for it is a building that was put up to replace a structure that really did possess quite a degree of picturesqueness, and as I write there is a plan to do away with it altogether.
In the public mind, the present market structure stands for the picturesque association of the past: when leaders in society and in politics came here in person, to choose their fruits and vegetables, their fish, their fowl, their cuts of meat, their great turtles.
How much more of the picturesque life held in those days ! The stately Webster was often here in all the glory of his blue coat with gilt buttons, his white cravat, his silk stockings, his varnished shoes and yellow gloves as on the morning of the day on which he received the twenty-five thousand dollars raised in State Street, and the twenty-five thousand raised in Wall Street, to make it seem financially possible for him, so it was quietly understood, to make what he deemed the sacrifice of taking the office of Secretary of State: and never was he more solicitous to select the perfect shad: never more the man of dignity, with no thoughts, so far as his superb appearance went, of anything below mighty affairs of state. General Scott, six feet four inches in height and remembered as an epicure, personally went marketing for his family. His favorite dish was terrapin—pronouncing it "tarrapin"—and he ordered his oysters by the barrel.
From Pennsylvania Avenue, opposite the middle of Center Market, may be seen close at hand to the north a beautiful high-set pillared building of stone, a veritable Doric temple : but this beautiful building merely faces down Eighth Street, which is almost wholly lined, in this section, with garages and stables. It is curious that this unusually beautiful building, now used as the Patent Office, stands where L 'Enfant planned to locate the Chapel of all Religions.
Pennsylvania Avenue, which ought to be the most dignified of all the avenues of the city, has an astonishing proportion of the shabby and the unimportant. This is especially true of the district between the pleasant greenery round Center Market and the Capitol, and this does not refer to many excellent buildings that have deteriorated, but to buildings that from the first were inadequate. The dignity of the avenue is upheld by the high-cockaded, high-mounted Pulaski, in bronze, and the little park about the Pole—and helped also by the little stubby, long-waisted Benjamin Franklin in white marble, philosophizing over the sidewalk, one of fewer than half a dozen civilian in-the-streets statues that come to mind as I write, three others being Longfellow, Witherspoon and a Masonic Pike.
The building of the great new Union Station has worked an immense influence upon the city, making permanent, and increasing, the movement that had already begun, to take away much of the business, much of the traffic and travel from Pennsylvania Avenue. It used to be that everybody was on much of the Avenue much of the time. Now it is quite possible for visitors scarcely to see Pennsylvania Avenue at all ! And this, whether they go about on foot, in street cars or in motor cars. But it will probably long continue to be the thoroughfare of the nation.
A little more than half way toward the Capitol is a really old-time hotel: dormered: with galleries two stories high, of Southern type, a reminder that this is essentially a Southern city; a hotel with an air of the past, although without a full share of its picturesqueness. It is associated with many famous names, for it was long the principal hotel of politicians and statesmen.
Few of the associations of Pennsylvania Avenue are more full of interest than the inaugural parades that have gone through this thoroughfare. There was Taft's; notable for the terrifically bad weather, although the weather man had promised a beautiful day. There was Polk's, when it was so muddy and slippery that marching was almost impossible, and soldiers in the line slipped and fell in the mud. There was the second Wilson parade, when among those prominent was the Governor of Mississippi with his military staff : in carriages. But what they lacked in mounts they made up in titles, in the estimate of the wicked-minded onlooker who declared that he counted thirty-eight majors!
Senator McDougall of California, a bitter opponent of Seward, leaving the Capitol one evening after a storm, stumbled into a ditch of dirty running water as he started down Pennsylvania Avenue, and with difficulty, and with the aid of a policeman, got out. "Who are you?" asked the policeman. McDougall looked ruefully down at his ruined clothes. "I was—I was Senator McDougall—but now—now —I think I'm Seward!"
Daniel Webster himself, one day, found the carriage in which he was driving suddenly mired in the mud of the avenue, whereupon, after vain effort for release, the driver lifted the mighty orator in his arms and bore him to the curb.
Not only the living, but the dead, have traversed our famous way. Here Garfield was shot, in a railway station since torn down: and through the length of the avenue his body, brought back from the sea-shore, where he died, was solemnly carried, the center of a nation's grief, over the route which he had on his inaugural parade so recently traversed.
Along this avenue, too, moved the solemn parade of those who followed the dead body of the mighty Lincoln, in silence unbroken except by footfalls, by the slow music of funeral marches, by the dirges, the muffled drums the sobs of the people.