Poking through the archives of the Washington Post, Tom at Ghosts of DC found a plan to sink several roads in downtown DC into trenches, build tunnels, and create a large underground parking structure beneath a big plaza where Freedom Plaza now stands.
Tom writes that, “The motivation for this was the push to make Pennsylvania the ‘grand axis of the Nation,’ removing unnecessary bottlenecks and messy intersections.”
From the Post article:
Between 6th and 13th sts., E st. would be simply a “depressed street”—a road sunk beneath ground level and roofed over at intersections, but mostly open to direct sunlight.
At 13th, however, it would become a tunnel, dipping under the proposed National Square and continuing beneath the southern fringe of the White House grounds, emerging at a point just west of 17th st.
Under the plan, E st. would be widened to six moving lanes and two access lanes and would have separate underground levels for traffic, parking and pedestrians. ...
Pennsylvania ave. itself would be kept at its present 8-lane width but would be repaved with a tinted, decorative material, such as hard brick laid over concrete.
Because of the distinctive materials used, one architect commented, “it will not only look different but sound different” to motorists.
This would have turned E Street into something close to a freeway downtown, continuing the existing freeway west of the White House. Downtown would have felt a lot more like another product of that era’s transportation mindset, L’Enfant Plaza, with its multiple levels of roadways that go under and over in an effort to speed cars while forgetting about what’s best for the pedestrian experience.
A “depressed street” creates a big barrier, psychological as well as physical. Even if people only cross at the corners, a street with stores on each side but a huge trench of traffic in between feels much more like two disconnected places than one with a solid street in between.
Harriet Tregoning has stated a belief that after the Connecticut Avenue underpass near Dupont Circle cut one side of the street off from the other, it hastened the decline of retail along that stretch. Besides, this plan would have demolished most of the buildings along E at the time and made it far wider, curb to curb.
What’s now Freedom Plaza (and large Pennsylvania Avenue roadways on each side) would have instead become a square with special pavement to create perhaps a sort of shared space not solely for cars. The picture from the Post doesn’t seem to depict any cars nor any people, so it’s hard to know how it might have worked.
It perhaps couldn’t have been much worse than the complete failure of a plaza we have today; a fountain would have been far more appealing to people than a giant marble dead zone only appealing to the skateboarders Park Police constantly chase off.
Maybe this could have been a bustling European-style square. Or, given what we know of the federal design mindset of the time (and sometimes of the present day), perhaps it would just have looked very stately, monumental, and devoid of life.