The most interesting sights when you travel are often the ones you’ve never heard of before. Such was the case when I checked into a bed and breakfast in Washington DC in the middle of Tuesday afternoon two weeks ago. Figuring I should spend the two full days I had in the nation’s capital on monuments I had never yet seen (e.g., for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.), I asked the co-owner of the bed and breakfast which sites might be good to visit within a 10-block radius.
“Meridian Hill Park,” he answered instantly. It was only a couple of blocks from us, he explained, and offered a great view of the surrounding area.
I think you can see from this photo I took not long after how correct he was.
The 12-acre site in northwest Washington is hardly large compared with other urban parks in North America (Stanley Park in Vancouver, for instance, is 1,001 acres, while New York’s Central Park is 843 acres), but its structured design—in the manner of a Renaissance villa landscape—reflects the city’s neoclassical architectural aspirations. Its combination of formal beauty and unique monuments make it an especially fascinating window into the city’s past. I highly doubt that any of this will come as a surprise to longtime residents, but prospective tourists will find it of note.
For the early part of its history, these grounds on the edge between Columbia Heights and the Adams-Morgan district served variously as a mansion (a cranky John Quincy Adams came here after losing the election of 1828), a setting for a college, a pleasure park and an encampment for Union troops during the Civil War. The park took a decisive step towards its present form when the Department of the Interior hired landscape architect George Burnap to draw plans for a formal park modeled after Renaissance and Italian gardens.(It is now under the supervision of the National Park Service.)
George Burnap’s plan (later revised by Horace Peaslee, and seen in the accompanying photo I took) was reminiscent of the stepped design of the garden of Italy’s former King, Victor Emmanuel III. One key difference was a new medium of construction, concrete aggregate, marked by small pebbles specially selected for size and color. The texture was then exposed through wire brushing and acid washing.
You don’t get a good idea of how impressive this can all look by entering the park from 16th Street, as I did. You have to ascend the heights in the park and look even beyond the magnificent cascading basin fountains and reflecting pools here and take in the neighborhood, no longer as bright in the mid-afternoon, late-autumn sun, spread out before you, and imagine the larger city beyond, yours for the taking.
That last point is important to keep in mind: this is, preeminently, a city park. You’ll behold statuary that’s often fascinating (Joan of Arc), sometimes stupefying (James Buchanan????). On the rather chilly day I visited, I saw joggers, young moms pushing baby carriages, and a scruffy fellow muttering loudly to himself (to whom I gave a very wide berth, as I do in New York). But the park is often, I gather, considerably more populated than what I saw, serving as a meeting point for political rallies and for a longtime drum circle. (Its association with African-Americans, dating back to DC’s days as a place for slaves, is so strong that the site is also often called Malcolm X Park.)