The Forgotten Parks of D.C.

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

Washington D.C. is an elegant city. It is smooth and soft-spoken. It’s clean and well kept, possibly because most of the residential buildings in the city are family townhouses. Low, two, three-storey buildings spread the city out, creating the impression Washington is bigger than it is. Sparse-density urbanity evokes the pastoral, idyllic way of life, whilst turning the corner might be enough to be immersed in a hip, cranky street, one that distinguishes the predominantly young population of the city from its more traditional aspects.

Another spice of this city: a southern flavor and mindset which melts away the stress that in New York is the elixir of life. For the skeptics and outsiders who have the impression that DC is dormant, unsexy and boring, there is an answer in rediscovering the pleasure of wonder, that effort of finding, instead of just being served. There, of course, is one big thing that Washington leaves a visitor wanting. In this flat land of large spaces, walking, and biking, one misses the squares and public areas where people can gather and hang out. There are no piazzas, the lifeblood of the urban community, a comfort for humanity from the times of polis and the Etruscans.

It is, therefore, no wonder that an institution as relatively small as Meridian Hill Park arouses such passion among Washingtonians. It is almost incomprehensible how much tenderness and care this park, borrowed from the style of the Renaissance and Baroque eras creates. A bit more than one hundred years old, an Italian style terraced fountain cascades into pools at the lower half, while gardens in the French Baroque style dominate the upper half, with walls, fountains, balustrades and benches. Built with concrete aggregate, the park was clearly not built by craftsmen but by industrial savoir-faire. Perhaps this is because the park was the least prioritized of the ambitious and influential projects that expanded the capital.

David Montgomery set the scene in his piece, “A Walk In the Park With a Past.”   White men built the capital of their new country in the tidewater bowl below, and an early landowner called the overlook Meridian Hill. Pierre L’Enfant ran his ruler along the foot of the escarpment and made it the northern border of his street plan. Several years later, Thomas Jefferson drew a line from the front door of the White House up 16th Street to the top of the hill and declared it the prime meridian for the planet, from which all distance and time should be measured.

One hundred years after its founding, the White House became too tight for the growing administration. But before the Congress approved a half-million dollar expansion of the executive offices into today’s West Wing, and Theodore Roosevelt moved into the new home with his big family, a rich family proposed to build a new and larger White House on the not-distant Meridian Hill. Backed by one of the architects of the Library of Congress, Mary Foote Henderson, the most powerful and influential woman in town, envisioned a new White House as a massive, temple-like complex with sprawling terraces and columned arcades.

The Hendersons had recently built a huge brownstone mansion, and with the new White House just across the street from their “castle,” the value of their land would increase enormously, making them even richer. They owned a lot of land along 16th Street that linked Meridian Hill with the White House. Mary Foote, who developed a respectable taste for the arts at a very young age, was a daughter of a prominent judge who later became Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office. Besides the new White House, she wanted to change 16th Street into Presidents Avenue, which would be lined, aside lavish diplomatic mansions, with the statue of each American president. Hendersons’ plan was politely refused, but that did not stop her. With vigor, she proposed Meridian Hill become the location for the Lincoln Mausoleum. The project, again, was denied, but the resilient lady who had many friends in Congress finally found success with her proposal to build the Meridian Hill Park.

The park was completed in 1930, with the statues of Dante, Joan of Arc and James Buchanan planted. Continues Montgomery with his description of the park:

An increasingly complex and diverse cast of characters was drawn to the social and geological drama of the place: Edwardian promenaders, Prohibition partiers, Depression bed rollers, bossy senatorial wives, soccer players, drummers, drug dealers, muggers, lovers, writers, martial artists, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Von Trapp Family Singers, Sun Ra, Tito Puente, Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Bill Clinton.

He forgot Fidel Castro, who in April 1959,  just a few months after he crushed Battista, visited the United States and came to the park from the nearby Cuban embassy.

From the time Washingtonian “aristocracy” dressed up to come to the park to listen to the Sunday concerts, to the 1960’s when it became a get-together scene for human rights advocates and supporters of the assassinated Malcolm X, Meridian Hill Park was a social laboratory. It was the last big wave of gentrifying change in the city, causing the departure of many African Americans and Hispanics, as recorded in this piece in the Washington Post.

Meridian Park has always been a stage of social change and experimentation–never gradual, but radical and dramatic. Today, the park looks abandoned, the cascades and fountains dried, the lawn dusty, the sword of Joan of Arc broken. If abandoned, Meridian Hill Park is not deserted. The local community takes care of the place, and during the weekend the bare park is still crowded with yoga people, various interest groups, debate groups, religious associations. But above all, on long summer nights, a group of unusual musicians and dancers appear in the park, drummers and dancers (video) who have been the constant heartbeat of D.C.’s Meridian Hill Park for nearly 50 years.

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