Photo by The Library of Congress
Massachusetts Ave near Thomas Circle at 14th Street
Massachusetts Ave near Thomas Circle at 14th Street

A eulogy to the ongoing death of Washington's greatest street

Massachusetts Ave near Thomas Circle at 14th street today (Photo by: ) Massachusetts Ave near Thomas Circle at 14th street today

We pierce the veil of old Washington and how it thought of itself (and how the world saw it) when we enter the time machine-esque street of Massachusetts Avenue.

From 9th Street at Mount Vernon Square all the way up to The National Cathedral (the suburbs back in the '20s), this was the grand avenue and an unintentional showpiece of the new republic.

By virtue of its geometry, Massachusetts Avenues cuts a diagonal path through the most influential parts of the city, a wide, if not THE widest boulevard that goes close to the White House and connects to major circles and streets, thus making it easy to get just about anywhere.

Symbolically, one part of it ends in the pastoral rolling hills of Montgomery County and the other end terminates at the city jail and workhouse in southeast; a blatant and vulgar social meter that indicated a person's position in early and feudal Washington society. 

14th and Massachusetts Ave. After The Great War, the old houses began to lose their owners and many became boarding houses. This photographer was commissioned to photographs examples of "blight" and he chose these. (Photo by: The Library of Congress/HABS) 14th and Massachusetts Ave. After The Great War, the old houses began to lose their owners and many became boarding houses. This photographer was commissioned to photographs examples of "blight" and he chose these.

14th and Massachusetts Ave. today (Photo by: ) 14th and Massachusetts Ave. today

Washington at its conception and during its development was modeled on European principles of urban living and scale, although our revulsion of those principles led us to break away and build our own country with a Constitution that rejected many of those ideals. Herein lies the attitude that caused the United States to destroy much of its European influenced architecture after the Second World War in a slow, frenzied purge that would last almost 45 years.

1920 Massachusetts and 15th Street.   Hard to believe that a Nazi flag used to fly legally from this street. It was the site of the German Embassy until it and the whole row were destroyed after the war. (Photo by: The Library of Congress/HABS) 1920 Massachusetts and 15th Street. Hard to believe that a Nazi flag used to fly legally from this street. It was the site of the German Embassy until it and the whole row were destroyed after the war.

Massachusetts and 15th Street today (Photo by: ) Massachusetts and 15th Street today

The embassies we see today were actually private houses where wealthy and appointed Washington society lived (the two usually went together back then unless you were some kind of war hero). They were designed by the country's best architects and interiors designers, many of whom had taken up in Washington years after the Civil War and had hoped to capitalize on the rebuilding of the nation, but the vast growth of the city was enough.

Countries that had relations with the US had legations or official offices and residences. The legations were not considered at the time to be the sanctioned and sovereign mini avatars of their country as they are today; they were just dwellings where they lived, often rented houses, manses or estates. Their grandeur depended on the influence their country wanted or needed to wield in Washington. France, Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and other "A-listers" took the matter rather seriously, as we can see even today.

1939 Massachusetts Ave & 16th Street. On the most prominent corner of the most prominent street, sat this house. (Photo by: The Library of Congress/HABS) 1939 Massachusetts Ave & 16th Street. On the most prominent corner of the most prominent street, sat this house.

Massachusetts Ave and 16th Street (Photo by: ) Massachusetts Ave and 16th Street

After World War II, the nation's collective emotion meter was dumbstruck in the red.

How we had ended up in yet another devastating conflict even after The Great War, especially with our efforts and attitude of self-isolationism in our own foreign policy led us to believe just how random and dangerous the world was.

("We'll build a sweet little nest somewhere out in the west and Let the rest of the world go by was the popular song at the time although written in 1919).

1935 (Photo by: The Library of Congress) 1935

Mass Ave.and Dupont Circle. The house on the right thankfully survives today. Its cousin was lost in the 1960s. (Photo by: ) Mass Ave.and Dupont Circle. The house on the right thankfully survives today. Its cousin was lost in the 1960s.

As we were building new structures (we never stopped) the thought of architects sitting down and designing anything that acknowledged the past failures of western civilization, especially architecture that took its cues from far-off, now dead and failed monarchies was about as appealing as eating 120- year-old borscht. But America was not ready to invent it's own architecture (we would leave that to Las Vegas later) so we began to internalize the new utopian principle of Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer (to name only two) and what would become known as The International Style (another  à la carte European movement that corporations like Marriott would use forever).

This was the Space Age, this was the nuclear age, we had beaten the Hun (twice and alone we like to think) and we were holding off the communist hordes. This was about progress and a clearing house for anything that reminded us of just how ugly we had let humanity become. But it didn't stop here, it was most of Washington and there is a website dedicated to it called Vanished: Washington.

0 Comments For This Article

Jerry A. McCoy

"But America was not ready to invent it's own architecture..."

Tell that to Frank Lloyd Wright! (Who passed away on the date 53 years ago.)

a reader

Thanks so much for taking the time to share old Mass Ave with us. It was a great treat and gave us pause to look around. It reminds me of having recently driven through, quite by chance, and for the first time, a neighborhood in and around S Street, NW. I was blown away by the fabulous brickwork on the houses. You don't see, really, anything like this in Georgetown, at least not in such accumulation that it can't be missed. I don't get into Washington often. I wish I knew it better.

Carbuncle

Simon,
As always, an enlightening piece. The one consolation is that many fine examples of pre-1945 architecture have been preserved along Massachusetts Avenue, particularly the stretch from Scott Circle to the Observatory. While many of us can never appreciate the beautiful exteriors and interiors that now lie broken in landfills, many magnificent buildings were thankfully spared the wrecking ball when the country craved the "clean lines" of the International Style. We are indeed fortunate that the likes of the Society of the Cincinnati (Anderson House), the Sulgrave Club, and the United Kingdom (speaking of the Lutyens building), to name just three, lacked the "foresight" of the urban planners and opted to make do with their outdated quarters.

Dana Lehmer

I enjoyed reading and seeing the glimpse of the past. It would be fun to see more. Thanks for doing the research.

The Author

Dear Jerry,
FLW said he invented his own American architecture but even his own
scholars say different. He borrowed, abstracted, dissected, and even stabbed in the heart from those whom he " borrowed." Louis Sullivan comes to mind for example (to name one).
FLW was a brilliant and genius architect by American standards, or just standards at the time. It is fun to point out that when Philip Johnson et al authored the renowned exhibition called "The International Style", FLW was not invited, but a glib statement by the organization, by Johnson no doubt, stated that Wright "was the most influential architect of the 19th Century." Holy shit. He put him up there with Queen Victoria.

My point is this: by the time our country looked at itself, Wright was a huge celeb, but he was an albatross who could do no Wright or wrong. He was an icon, and that can be a pejorative term.

The Author

But my brother Carbuncle,(that is the name of my new band as of now) you are so right, but we lost so much before that sensible thinking kicked in. Those beautiful buildings survived because they were gorgeous and big, 3,000 smaller, just as wonderful fell, 1% only to photographed.

Robert Kennedy Frost

Mass. Ave. does not end at the jail...rather, it extends across the Anacostia, up and in to a beautiful section east of the river...it's most beautliful wooded stretches and vistas can be found there..beautiful.