January 19, 2021 /
Jona Elwell

Pennsylvania Ave Trees

For safety reasons Pennsylvania Ave NW won’t be filled with as many spectators this inauguration, the street is always lined with trees. In honor of the coming Presidential inauguration this week, we’re taking a look at street trees along the typical route from the US Capitol to the White House.

Some history first:  In 1961, John F. Kennedy created the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue to address the lackluster state of what many thought of as America’s Main Street. The commission proposed simplifying intersections, building new public spaces, and opening up vistas. After Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson advanced the work by establishing the President’s Temporary Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue. Further development occurred in the 1980s, led by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC). 

Photo courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The PADC led to the opening up of Pennsylvania Ave – literally and figuratively. Several significant parks and open spaces were added along the route, including Pershing Park, Freedom Plaza, and John Marshall Park. The sidewalks were widened and a unified streetscape was installed that included brown-brick pavers and granite curbing. Sidewalks were widened for people and aesthetics, but they were also widened to accommodate a third row of Willow Oaks – a species that defines the avenue’s visual character and experience. 700 willow oak trees were planted by 1984, under the guidance of the PADC.



Photo courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The willow oak is a strong and beautiful tree that shares similarities with other oaks but is unique in many other ways that make it such an attractive tree to behold. The most significant particularity of the willow oak is the shape of its leaves, which are narrow and slender and very similar to that of the willow tree. Quercus phellos is especially treasured due to its ability to tolerate harsh urban environments, which was probably a deciding factor for its placement along famed Pennsylvania Avenue. Plus, the willow oak grows comfortably in this toxic environment and helps to clean and clear the air while its aesthetic qualities bring joy to many a motorist, pedestrian, and resident. It’s a beauty year round though, its bark is thick, dark, and shallowly furrowed and its twigs are slender and of a reddish-brown color. In fall, the leaves turn to a pale yellow color that complements nicely the red, brown and orange fall colors of surrounding street trees.

So on Wednesday, while you’re safely at home, check in on the broadcast to see if you spot any willow oaks! We can even help you plant one for free, or you can stroll your neighborhood using our Trees Near Me map to see if you have a willow oak in your midst.

It’s no mistake that the inauguration route follows Pennsylvania Avenue – the President isn’t simply walking from the Capitol building to the White House. By creating a direct linkage between the two significant structures, the avenue is both a symbolic and physical reminder of the interplay between the legislative and executive branches of government. Due to its immense importance in not only inaugurations, but also other demonstrations, the 1.2 mile stretch that runs between the White House and the US Capitol building was designated a National Historic Site in 1966, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. DC manages the Pennsylvania Avenue roadway from curb to curb, and NPS manages the parks, plazas, the majority of sidewalks, special lighting, trees, sculpture, and memorials.