Massachusetts Avenue

Please click on your segment of interest:

Click for 1904 figure ground map of west segment of Massachusetts Avenue
Click for 1904 figure ground map of east segment of Massachusetts Avenue

Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 Plan for Washington, D.C. is a brilliant compendium of circles, squares, wide avenues, and broad vistas that are knitted together by a traditional grid. The plan carefully blends various geometries and avoids pure reliance upon hei rarchies, symbolizing visually the democratic nation that the founding fathers sought to establish. Yet one street seems to stand out from the intricate plan. This street is Massachusetts Avenue, which runs the length of the entire city in a bold northwest to southeast diagonal. For almost one hundred years, Massachusetts Avenue has been the capital’s premier residential street.

Massachusetts Avenue is known today as one of the country’s grandest Avenues, an advertisement for America’s wealth, civic leadership, and architectural achievement. Encouraged by the post-war prosperity and federal building program, Massachusetts Avenue ’s residential development began in the 1870s and was largely concentrated around the circles located west of 9th Street. As an appropriate civic complement to Pennsylvania Avenue’s government function, the Avenue’s emerging residential preeminence becam e evident in both its grand mansions of high architectural quality and its famous residents, who figured prominently in national politics, industry, and culture. In addition, patronage by the Avenue’s wealthy residents was crucial step in establishing the careers of Washington architects, such as Glenn Brown and Jules Henri di Sibour.

However, by the 1920s, the Avenue’s Beaux Arts splendor began to wane and the grand avenue became vulnerable to the pressures of a growing population, corporate identity, and soaring land prices. Second and third generation homeowners have felt burdened by the expense of maintaining the monumental properties and have either sold the residences for use as apartments or embassies or have left the upkeep up to the agent of time. Yet Massachusetts Avenue, with its various civic buildings, has fared better t han most American Avenues in avoiding the urban pressures.

Massachusetts Avenue, which stretches from the Naval Observatory in the northwest sector of the city to D.C. General Hospital in the southeast part of the city, encompasses a wide range of urban forms and uses. From Naval Observatory to Sheridan Circle, the section is characterized by its opulent mansions, prestigious social history, and current status as "Embassy Row". The section from Sheridan Circle to Scott Circle is known for the large Victorian mansions around Dupont Circle, the early-twentieth-ce ntury Classical and Beaux Arts houses of "Millionaires’ Row", and the new high-rise office buildings and apartment complexes that indicate this section’s continued desirability. From Scott Circle to Mount Vernon Square, the section mixes old and new arch itectural styles, large mansions and modest row houses, and commercial and residential uses to create a fluctuating, vibrant streetscape. The section from Mount Vernon Square to Union Station is the section with the most formal contrasts - varying from m onumental office buildings to burnt-out townhouses and surface parking lots - that combine to discourage further development and tourist traffic. From Union Station to Lincoln Park, the section’s quality residential homes, fine commercial buildings, and notable institutional structures reflect the early growth of the Capital Hill neighborhood and survive today due to urban renewal efforts and historic preservation protection ordinances. The section from Lincoln Park to D.C. General Hospital has changed little since its initial residential development and is well-rooted in the history of African-Americans in Washington D.C. The historical residential forms and uses of the terminal sections serve to anchor Massachusetts Avenue as it’s middle sections fac e numerous pressures for change.

The following pages, which identify and describe the monumental buildings and structures along Massachusetts Avenue, are a tribute to its grand architecture, fascinating social history, and ability to adapt to various pressures that threaten its noble des ign. Massachusetts Avenue survives today as an example of Washington D.C.’s glamour and architectural achievement and as testimony to the enduring power of a civic place.

The Massachusetts Avenue Corridor study was completed by students in The Design of Cities course during Fall 1997. Three students from that class, Amy Probsdorfer, Christopher Rogers and Brian Mannelly, worked diligently to create this segment of the website, sponsored by a Dean's Forum Grant from the School of Architecture.

Works Consulted for this project:
Applewhite, E.J. Washington Itself: An Informal Guide to the Capital of the United States. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Carson, Jeffrey R. Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, District of Columbia; History and Analysis. Masters Thesis. Charlottesville, VA, 1971.

Cigliano, Jan and Sarah Bradford Landau, eds. The Grand American Avenue 1850-1920. 1st edition. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 1994.

Kousoulas, Claudia D. and George W. Kousoulas. Contemporary Architecture in Washington D.C. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1995.

Jennings, J.L. Sibley Jr., Sue A. Kohler, and Jeffrey R. Carson. Massachusetts Avenue Architecture. Volumes I and II. Washington, D.C.: Commission of Fine Arts, 1975.

Weeks, Christopher. AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington D.C. 3rd edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1994.