Invisible Cities

The changing faces of Washington, D.C.


Down on lower Pennsylvania Avenue, amid the courthouses and federal buildings, there used to be a run-down old diner called Barney's. Bureaucrats, after all, want to eat lunch too. Barney's was a real urban fossil, a reminder of the days when Washington's locals knew the famous street merely as "the Avenue" and when the area was full of department stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and other establishments that served local residents rather than the federal seat of power. That street is gone: Pennsylvania Avenue is now rebuilt as a grand parade route, lined with marble edifices and largely bereft of urban life. There's no place on it for a Barney's; the old diner was destroyed more than 20 years ago.

That's too bad, because Barney's actually reached back much farther into Washington's curious history, all the way back to the nation's own roots. Above Barney's ornate neon sign were a pair of Greek Revival windows that were the last surviving remnants of the old Metropolitan Hotel. That was one of the capital's premier hostelries when the city was an unpaved backwater and the muddy Avenue contained most of its commercial life. It was at the site of the Metropolitan (called Brown's in those days) that "The Star Spangled Banner" was first sung in Washington, and it was in its lobby that Abe Lincoln first signed for a room when he got to town.

Washington is an unusual palimpsest. It appears to lead at least two lives that have little to do with each other: a federal one that impinges on everyone and is constantly in the news, and a largely unknown local life. The larger and grander the capital has grown over the years, the more these two lives have seemed to diverge. But these apparently disparate narratives are only different pages from the same history; neither is complete without the other.

The city's usually separate lives meet, for a change, in James M. Goode's lavish work Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington's Destroyed Buildings (Smithsonian), a thickened update of a work first published in 1979. Goode, who spent 17 years as the curator of the Smithsonian Castle, has not assembled a picture book for nostalgics. In the course of presenting Washington's lost streetscapes and structures (among them Barney's), Goode also tells a tale of power, evoking the changing role of the city as a great (and not so great) capital. Reflected in hundreds of images of now-demolished wood, brick, and stone structures are the changing demands that resulted from the city's ever-expanding national and international roles. In Goode's pages one may trace the city's gradual shifts of identity, from the national capital's origin among obscure Potomac port towns to its long life as a middling Southern city to the latter-day pretensions to greatness that have often been undone by the mediocrity of its federal overseers and its own perfectly awful city government.

Early federal officials did very little with their capital city; they even refused for 75 years to pave the Avenue. It soon became the role of the locals to develop the city in the usual way: privately. Thus was born a natural marriage of need: The feds long provided the locals their business, such as a demand for board and for printing, along with an inexhaustible supply of clerkships. In exchange, the locals built the nation its capital. Goode's history of this most public of all cities is thus a showcase of largely private places. There are the inevitable fancy mansions of the city's wealthy class, of course, but there are many more theaters, apartment buildings, stores, schools, and churches—the places in which every city lives through its innumerable private lives.

Did the locals do a good job for the nation? They might have done a better one if they'd served themselves better. For example, Washingtonians might have built themselves more of a stage on which to enjoy themselves. They chose otherwise. The city has never quite overcome a regional sense of conservative propriety; its role as the seat of power exacerbated this quality until it became an almost single-minded reach for dignity.

Not that Washington didn't enjoy itself. It gorged itself, often on dishes it invented (steamed oysters, say), and it famously liked drinking itself into a stupor (at one time, on the gin rickeys it invented). It even nurtured one of the country's prime punk scenes. But D.C. has long regarded most of its pleasures as private matters, rather than as matters to boast about, much less revel in. Washington's characteristic public reserve—architectural, retail, even stylistic—is visible on almost every page of Goode's work.

This reserve has made Washington a city of secrets, and it is at the private, secretive level that the city's federal and local lives are most intimately intertwined. The capital, which has only recently established a museum of local history, has allowed rather a lot of its own story to remain obscure.

Not so long ago, for example, you might have grabbed lunch at Barney's, with its connection to the newly arriving Abe Lincoln, then had dinner that evening a few blocks up the Avenue at Marocco's, an Italian place doing business in what had been a 19th-century livery. It was in that building that a stable hand known as Peanut worked quietly for decades, despite his notoriety. Peanut was the man who held the getaway horse for John Wilkes Booth behind Ford's Theater as Booth, unknown to Peanut, was assassinating Lincoln. Booth forcefully kicked Peanut to the ground as he galloped away toward F Street, a story that Peanut told daily throughout his long life.

Barney's is gone now, and so is the old livery that housed Marocco's. The Avenue these days is marbled and transformed according to a federal plan to achieve grandeur. If you take Pennsylvania Avenue now, it bypasses the marshy village and the middling town it once served. It's leading you to yet another Washington.