An expanse of land between the Capitol and White House, Downtown East is an underappreciated architectural enclave in central Washington. Incorporating the oldest commercial buildings in the city, the area exhibits a remarkably long architectural evolution of over a century and a half, including several cycles of redevelopment, with survivors from each.
Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House, location of some of the earliest residential and commercial settlement in the city, is the area's southern boundary. The commercial core extends north from it to Massachusetts Avenue, between 16th Street on the west and North Capitol Street on the east.
Distinctive areas in Downtown East are a result of special protective designations or treatment programs such as the Downtown Historic District, the 15th Street Financial Historic District, and the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Other enclaves developed around the parklike squares that Pierre Charles L'Enfant provided at the intersection of major thoroughfares, such as Franklin and McPherson squares, or from a clustering of similar uses, such as Judiciary Square, where municipal and federal courts are located. Still others, such as Chinatown, centered on H Street and the commercial thoroughfare along 7th Street, are a product of historical phenomena.
Topography and transportation routes helped define the geographical framework of Downtown East. From the flatlands of Pennsylvania Avenue, the land rises precipitously to F Street, an area secure from the flooding from the Tiber Creek and the Washington City Canal. Streetcar routes along 7th Street reinforced the development of that thoroughfare as the city's first major commercial street. Other rail lines along Pennsylvania Avenue and F Street completed the transportation network to the downtown core by the early twentieth century.
For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, aside from Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street, a good part of the area was residential. Shopkeepers frequently lived above their stores or close to their establishments, creating a kind of walking city before mass transportation enabled the population to separate living from working. By the 1920s, F Street, anchored by major department stores, reigned as the supreme commercial thoroughfare in the city. Commerce reached G Street, a secondary commercial artery, and then farther north as office buildings and shops opened on 14th and other northsouth streets.
Downtown East served as the hub of immigrant groups. In the 1930s, when the Federal Triangle replaced the old Chinatown south of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Chinese community moved to H Street and adorned existing buildings with oriental motifs. As successive waves of ethnic groups occupied Downtown East, new churches were built and others were adapted. For example, synagogues were converted to Baptist churches that served predominantly black congregations.
Downtown East reached its peak as the city's commercial heart in the years between the world wars. By the late 1940s, in the face of suburbanization, the importance of the traditional downtown declined. Businesses and organizations sought offices in Downtown West, where new buildings were developed. After the riots that accompanied the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, retail sales plummeted and Downtown East kept only a handful of department stores, marginal shops, and low-rent offices.
In order to reverse the downward trend, city officials attempted to revive the area through such devices as constructing a two-lane brick median strip in the middle of F Street between 13th and 14th streets to encourage pedestrian use of this block and of several others nearby. The Metro system opened several stations in Downtown East, and a gigantic convention center was viewed as a way to attract visitors, stimulate hotel construction, and generate additional tax revenues. At the southern end of the area, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation manages a separate development process that fosters innovative new construction and adaptive use of landmark buildings. Plans to reintroduce housing on the thoroughfare and elsewhere in Downtown East are also underway.
In the wake of these infrastructure projects and the filling out of Downtown West, real estate developers began to assemble sites and erect new buildings. By the late 1970s, as old buildings were being pulled down and new ones put up, the area's character changed dramatically.
City planners and developers hoped to avoid the mistakes of Downtown West. Moreover, by the 1970s, the city's consciousness of historic preservation had matured, and improved laws and regulations were in place protecting the Downtown Historic District, the 15th Street Financial Historic District, and the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site.
Most of the new office structures are designed in a Postmodern spirit, thus providing a different character to the new office blocks. Some retail shopping has survived in the area. Unlike Downtown West, Downtown East contains several important cultural and historical institutions, such as the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and National Portrait Gallery, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Public Library, the National Park Service's Ford's Theatre and the Petersen House (where Lincoln died), the National Building Museum, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, all of which provide institutional and urban stability.
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