The Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site, Old Post Office, Washington DC


The Old Post Office Building.
Photo courtesy of GSA.

Pennsylvania Avenue is certainly among the world’s most famous streets. While the Avenue serves work-a-day Washington as a major east-west transit route, it is known the world over as the heart of the Nation’s Capital. Many Presidential inauguration parades and political protest marches have taken place along Pennsylvania Avenue. On September 30, 1965, the Secretary of the Interior, with the President’s concurrence, designated it the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site, encompassing the Avenue between the Capitol and the White House, and a number of blocks around it.

The L’Enfant Plan placed the Congress House (the US Capitol Building) on Jenkins Hill and the President’s House (the White House) on a low ridge north of the mouth of Tiber Creek and connected them with a broad, diagonal avenue. The name Pennsylvania Avenue was first applied to this avenue by Thomas Jefferson in a 1791 letter, but no one is sure why it was named for the Keystone State. One theory holds that this was done in order to appease Pennsylvania, which would see the federal capital move from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800. Others hold that the city’s diagonal avenues were named in a logical north to south progression. Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York Avenues lie north of Pennsylvania Avenue, while Maryland and Virginia Avenues lie to its south, just as these states do on a map of the United States.

Historic street view of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Photo courtesy of GSA.

Pennsylvania Avenue became Washington’s first downtown street with shops, markets, and a financial district growing along it during the 19th century. However, at the end of the 19th century, and continuing into the 20th century, the Avenue became an eye sore to local residents with tattoo parlors, rooming houses, and cheap hotels lining the street. An early attempt at improving Pennsylvania Avenue occured when Congress authorized the construction of a new combined Post Office Department and City Post Office building at 12th St. and the Avenue in 1892. Designed in the Romanesque Revival style by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, the building was completed in 1899, and its 315 foot tall clock tower remains an Avenue landmark today. This building was followed in 1909 by the completion of the District Building at 14th St. and (what was then) E St. Designed by Cope and Stewardson in the Beaux Arts style made popular by the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1892, the building was constructed to house the District of Columbia government. Still in use by the District’s government today, it too remains an Avenue landmark.

Due to the Avenue’s then blighted state, Congress created the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation on October 27, 1972 to plan and carry out the Avenue’s revitalization. Declaring its redevelopment to be in the national interest, Congress directed that the Avenue be developed, maintained, and used “in a manner suitable to its ceremonial, physical, and historic relationship to the legislative and executive branches of the Federal Government and to the governmental buildings, monuments, memorials, and parks in or adjacent to the area.” In 1964, the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue recommended all but the clock tower of the Old Post Office be torn down and a demolition permit was granted in 1971. Citizen protest saved the Old Post Office from the wrecking ball and led to a major rehabilitation of the building being authorized by Congress in 1977.

The Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site is located on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. The Old Post Office is located at 12th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. It is open from 8:00 am to 10:45 pm daily from Mid-April to Labor Day and 10:00 am to 5:45 pm the rest of the year.