Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Mrs. Cole’s Bay Window: Parking, streets, trees, projections, and the Secretary of War


By Matthew B. Gilmore*

What is that space between the curb and the sidewalk (or even some entire front yards in certain neighborhoods)? Who owns it, controls it, manages it? The term of art from the late 19th century for this intermediate space is “parking” (sometimes “parkings” — and not about parking carriages but rather about green space). That question of use and control was at the heart of a contentious lawsuit in 1889 pitting Mrs. Annie Cole and the District Commissioners against the United States government.

Washington has always been known for its wide streets. It is and has been known as the “City of Trees.” The two — streets and trees — are intimately intertwined. The image here from around 1907 looking south on Connecticut Avenue illustrates that connection. The avenue is 130 feet wide from building face to building face. The roadway carrying traffic is just 5- feet.

1907 postcard view facing south along Connecticut Ave. from just below M St., NW. image--courtesy John DeFerrari, streetsofwashington.com.

Street widths were set at the founding of the city as part of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for the City of Washington. The plan as finalized by Andrew Ellicott and published in 1792 set street widths ranging from 90 to 110 feet, with the grand avenues wider still at 130 to 160 feet. By comparison, New York’s major streets are 100 feet wide and others 60 feet; Chicago’s arterials are 100 feet and other streets 66 feet wide; Phoenix streets range from 50 to 140 feet wide.

Section from map, "Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia: ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government, after the year MDCCC," Andrew Ellicott, Boston (1792). image-- Library of Congress, Geography & Maps Div..

It’s clear that L’Enfant had “foot ways [and] walks of trees” in mind in his plan, but the parking as we know it did not come into existence until 1870.

Famous for its wide streets, Washington became infamous for its dust in dry weather and mud when wet. Any visitor or resident expectations to the contrary were surely misguided, particularly in the city’s early years. Most American cities were dusty in dry weather and muddy when it rained. Washington was no different and was planned on a grand scale, with much space for expansion and growth; the spacious streets being a singular feature of that.

Unfortunately, the city’s finances couldn’t support extensive roadway paving. Few seem to realize (and appreciate) that pavement, while expensive to install, can be ruinously expensive to continually maintain. Broken, poorly maintained pavement would have been far more harmful than the alternating clouds of dust and puddles of mud.

As president, Thomas Jefferson oversaw the improvement of Pennsylvania Avenue in 1803 — Lombardy poplars were planted at the edge of the main roadway, setting off an accessory lane on each side with another row of poplars (similar to certain stretches of K Street, NW today — absent the poplars).[1]

Idealized 1830s depiction of Washington, DC in the early 1800s. image--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div..

President Andrew Jackson had the poplars removed in the 1830s and the roadway paved. Coping effectively with the remaining width of the streets in the rest of the city had to wait until 1870 with the development of the “parking.”

Congress approved and the President signed on April 6, 1870 “An Act authorizing the corporation the City of Washington to set apart portions of streets and avenues as parks for trees and walks . . . to be adorned with shade-trees, walks, and enclosed with curb stones, not exceeding one-half the width of any and all avenues and streets in the said city of Washington, leaving a roadway of not less than thirty-five feet. . . .” and it included the stipulation that “nothing in this act shall authorize the occupancy of any portion of the public streets or avenues for private purposes.”[2]



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