“It may be a place where street musicians, unsung poets, and self-styled orators perform for transient audiences. Artists will come with their easels and paints. The pigeons will come and people will come and feed the pigeons. Lovers will come. Fathers will come with children. Intellectuals will come with their notebooks.”
That’s how planners described the vision for Freedom Plaza, the square along Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 13th and 14th Streets, in a document unearthed by DC Council public information officer and @councilofdc tweeter Josh Gibson. Instead, it’s anything but.
Gibson said, “None of this came true. Not even the pigeons.” Michael Neibauer described it in the Washington Business Journal as “an imposing concrete expanse with little to offer the public.”
One of the project’s designers, architect Denise Scott Brown, agrees. In a phone interview, she described the original design as “a lovely success,” but said, “I see the execution as a failure.”
What happened? To understand this, we must start with what the site was originally planned for, which was something much different.
It started with the goal to rejuvenate Pennsylvania Avenue
Pennsylvania Avenue is more than just the address of the White House. It’s a national symbol, reflecting the ceremonial and commercial center of the District. After World War II, though, economic decline caused the avenue to deteriorate to the point that it needed presidential intervention.
At the request of President John F. Kennedy, an organization known as the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue was formed in 1963 with the goal to improve the avenue, especially its appearance. The council was made up of architects, urban planners and other experts. A year later, the group’s first report proposed several changes with street furniture, raised terraces for parade viewing, broad setbacks, and a shared cornice line.
The centerpiece of this vision: National Square, between 14th and 15th Streets (where Pershing Park is now), with a 150-foot-wide fountain at the center, a memorial to General John Pershing to the south and 600 parking spaces underneath.
The report voiced high hopes for this planned project. It said the square would “symbolize and serve as a reception area for White House visitors.” According to Thomas Luebke’s publication, Civic Art: A Ceremonial History of the US, the square was modeled after The Place de la Concorde in Paris.
These plans changed over time with four alternative schemes brought to the federal Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in January 1966. While the CFA approved a reduced version with the fountain moved to the west, the organization said that the plan “still contains numerous unsolved problems,” including the failure to clearly define the avenue’s terminus.
National Square faded once Congress created a temporary federal agency, known as the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC), which produced a comprehensive plan in 1974 after working with the CFA and other agencies.
Congress approved the plan a year later for the development of five public open spaces, the first of which would be Pershing Park and an adjacent square, Western Plaza, now Freedom Plaza.
Miniature White House and Capitol and 100-foot pylons
By March of 1978, Western Plaza was planned to be a large, rectangular plaza incised with Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s map of DC, lined by low landscaping with two 100-foot-tall marble pylons framing the Treasury Building. Eventually, the design shifted with the terrace raised and with flagpoles, a pool of water, and statue of Casimir Pulaski added.
Also added were miniature, three-dimensional marble models of the White House and US Capitol, but these would soon prove the most problematic.
In September of that year, the DC government officially objected to Western Plaza’s design. The District’s Director of Planning, Ben Gilbert, described the pylons as an unnecessary “complicating factor” and the “miniature buildings and other sculpture pieces … not appropriate for this location.” Not too long after, DC Mayor Marion Barry also rejected the design, and The American Society of Landscape Architects asked for a more landscape-oriented scheme.
In 1979, the CFA had the incised L’Enfant plan pulled closer to the center, the paved area in front of the John A. Wilson District Building enlarged, large urns for seasonal flower displays added, and the pylons replaced by flagpoles.
When mock-ups of the miniature models of the White House and US Capitol were temporarily installed, Scott Brown said, “Immediately, tourists came there with their kids, put them in front of the buildings and took photographs of them with the big buildings in the background, which was exactly the thing that we wanted them to do.”
Despite the interaction with the mock-ups, Scott Brown said that then-Architect of the Capitol George White looked at them very carefully, both up close and then back 150 feet or so. “He came back and he said, ‘I don’t know what to say. Close up, I love them, and far away, I don’t like them.’”
It wasn’t until all vertical elements were removed that the CFA approved the design in September 1979. In 1980, Western Plaza was complete.
Eight years later, it was renamed Freedom Plaza in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Into the 1990s, the space was further modified with a fountain incorporated into the plaza’s pool.
Freedom Plaza’s present and future
The final product, according to Scott Brown, is “It had no shade. It didn’t have much interest. It had no scale.”
It also has no single entity to watch over its wear and tear. The PADC dissolved in 1996. There was a bill in September 2014 by DC Councilmember Jack Evans to create a District Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation to ensure “suitable development, maintenance and use of the vital area of local, as well as federal, importance,” but it never passed.
One group of people do use Freedom Plaza regularly: skateboarders. The open hardscape and railings of Freedom Plaza make an excellent and popular skate park, though skating there is not actually allowed and Park Police regularly chase skaters from the park.
Scott Brown said, “They came from all over the country to wreck our plaza, which they nearly did, and all those inscriptions on the floor and everything else, that’s ruined by roller skating.” Others, like GGWash contributor Dan Reed, point out that designing public spaces to welcome skaters can “reinvigorate” public spaces.
Over the years, Freedom Plaza has at times had more activity than just skateboarders. In October 2011, scores of protesters “occupied” Freedom Plaza, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, and it's a favorite spot for local activists to hold rallies.
Events like these have caused others like Birnbaum to see the merits of the emptiness. “I think what’s great about the space is the fact that it’s open, and it can be programmed,” he said. “You have to think about it also in relation to when Pershing Park was created … Imagine that you have the option that you want to be in dappled light in a more intimate space in an elevation that is sort of screened from the cars, you go and you have your lunch on the water’s edge at Pershing Park. If you want to be in the middle of the city and have that powerful visual connection to the Capitol and feel the bustling traffic around you, then you’re in Freedom Plaza.”
In 2016, eighth-graders at Two Rivers Public Charter School to proposed new uses for the public space. Amanda Kolson Hurley of Washington City Paper reported that students said the space was “boring, cold,” “gray,” and it “doesn’t know what it wants to be.” After reimagining the space or designing public art for the plaza, the students presented their designs to panels of experts in architecture and urban planning.
The designs, Hurley wrote, included using lighting to set off the quotes in the fountain, adding a stage to the east for large events, moving the fountain to the middle, adding a small cafe and public bathroom, and installing two rows of large sculptures representing the different cultures of the world. Surprisingly, one of the students also proposed adding large models of the White House and US Capitol in the plaza, with a unique detail that visitors could write on them or drop postcards into them.
As these students did, we must also rethink unsuccessful public spaces. While fallen in stature, Freedom Plaza is still capable of becoming a positive presence in the city. The DC Council’s Gibson said in an email, “My main gripe is that the fountain hasn’t worked in forever. Just having that work would make a bit of a difference, make sitting in the shade-less baking sun a bit more tolerable, etc.”
Whether Freedom Plaza can and will regularly bring together “street musicians, unsung poets, self-styled orators,” “artists,” “pigeons,” “lovers,” “fathers” (and mothers), and “intellectuals,” still remains to be seen.