Bringing Water to Brookland, Pt. 3
In 1850, journalist Frederick Law Olmsted visited Birkenhead Park in a suburb of Liverpool, England, and was astounded at the natural tableau spread before him.
Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent in studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America, there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden.
Birkenhead was England’s first publicly-funded park and it was used “about equally by all classes,” according to Olmsted. This was something new. Up to that point, parks had primarily been reserved for the rich, or the royal. Open parks, sometimes called public pleasure grounds, were a new concept, one that Olmsted gave himself over to completely, inventing in the process a new field – landscape architecture.
Together with his partner Calvert Vaux, Olmsted set standards for landscape architecture that are still in use today. Central Park in New York was, and remains, Olmsted’s crown jewel, but he designed parks and landscapes in cities all over the country and beyond. Here in Washington, he designed the grounds of the United States Capitol in 1874. Looking back on his career, Olmsted said:
The root of all my work has been an early respect for and enjoyment of scenery, and extraordinary opportunities for cultivating susceptibility to its power. I mean not so much grand or sensational scenery as scenery of a more domestic order — scenery which is to be looked upon contemplatively and is producing of musing moods.
That love of composed scenery, of the beautiful vista, he passed along to his sons, Frederick Jr. and John C., who together formed the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm to continue their father’s work. Frederick Jr. was only 30 years old when he was tapped by Michigan senator James McMillan in 1901 to join his Senate Park Commission. The outsized reputation of his father guaranteed Olmsted Jr. a seat at the table for what would be one of the boldest attempts at large-scale city planning in American history.
Joining Olmsted at that table were sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim. All four men had been part of the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 which birthed the “City Beautiful” movement. The McMillan Commission was a natural outgrowth of that movement. One main focus was the national mall and the “monumental core,” but it was also concerned with new parks outside downtown, including a string of parks that would connect the Civil War era forts around the outskirts of the city.
The McMillan Plan was accepted and approved by Congress on January 15, 1902. That doesn’t mean the various parts of the plan were immediately implemented or adequately funded. But over the years, in piecemeal fashion, much of the plan was realized, setting the tone and style of the monumental core for generations to come. It touched the outer parks too, but not with the same urgency as beautifying downtown.
“Parking” the Reservoir
Senator James McMillan died suddenly of heart failure on August 10, 1902, at the age of 64. The state of Michigan mourned at his unexpected demise, as did Washington DC, given how important a role McMillan played in the life and look of the city. In 1906, the Civic Center, a DC citizen’s group, proposed that the Washington City Reservoir and the part of the new filtration plant on the west side of First Street be named for Senator McMillan, while the portion of the plant on the east side be named for New Hampshire Senator Jacob Gallinger, who was then chair of the Committee on the District of Columbia. The proposal was sent to the War Department, since their engineers were in control of the facility. Captain Spencer Cosby, the engineer in charge, had one suggestion:
It is rather doubtful whether the filtration plant and the surrounding grounds can properly be called a park. Should, however, such a designation be deemed suitable, it is believed that a single name should be applied to the plant as a whole and the adjacent grounds surrounding the Washington city reservoir.
Cosby suggested the Michigan senator be given the honor, averring that naming a portion for a living person was not appropriate. Secretary of War William Howard Taft agreed, and proclaimed the entire facility McMillan Park. Despite Captain Cosby’s doubts about whether the reservoir and filtration plant could become a “proper” park, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was hired in 1907 to beautify and landscape the grounds. He and Captain Cosby did a delicate little dance at the beginning. Cosby, in charge of the facility, had already done some planting and had plans to do more as well as some regrading, but Olmsted asked him to refrain until he had completed a full formal plan for the entire site. Olmsted had the backing of Congress and the McMillan family, and Cosby wisely decided that working respectfully together was the best course.
The family, the Senate, and the whole state of Michigan were also eager for a memorial to Senator McMillan somewhere on the grounds and that became part of Olmsted’s charge. In January of 1907, he took his first look at the place with a member of the McMillan Memorial Committee. He was less than impressed, judging by the notes he left:
Went out to look at “park” with Mr. Donaldson…It is a queer place. We decided that if anything could be made out of it it would be by planting several formal rows of small growing trees around the edges of the filter bed flats. Thought the memorial might be an arch or gateway at break in grade on 1st Street at southerly edge of southerly filter bed, springing across the street to a little knoll on the west side.
In order to help you get oriented, here is a 1911 map of the plan Olmsted developed for McMillan Park. One tiny error: the map misnames Glenwood Cemetery as Greenwood. A little bit of it appears on the right edge of the map. Click to enlarge.
Olmsted began drawing up his plans and went for another visit in May. His associate Percival Gallagher joined him along with Capt. Cosby and his associate Lt. Elliott Dent. Gallagher left a summation that points out some of the concerns of the engineers:
As to the treatment of the filter beds Lieutenant Dent said it would not be feasible to plant anything on the flat summits as they not only needed the space to circulate freely with their carts in refilling the filters with sand but he also felt the roots of any trees would affect the roofs of the filters by their roots working into any possible seams or cracks in the concrete. It seemed possible for the most part to have a line of low-growing trees or a hedge about the edge of the top of the filters…”
Those were serious limitations for landscaping the flat plains of the filter beds. There were other limitations as well.
The idea of an arch as a memorial across First Street at a point where the profile of the street changes from an ascending grade to a level line seemed in every way good. It did not seem best to provide for a passageway over the top of the arch so there would be access to the level tops of the filter, as Lieutenant Dent said it would not be desirable to have the public on these latter areas.
In short, not only were trees not allowed on top of the filter beds on the east side of First Street, but people would not be allowed either. The west side of First Street, with the reservoir and only a few filter beds, provided more parklike opportunities.
It seemed best to preserve the hillock between the river [reservoir] and First Street and make that point the beginning of a park treatment of the land lying south and west of it which descends to lower ground below the level of the reservoir. From this hillock and from the dam-like construction about the southerly side of the reservoir there are good views southward towards the city, and it would seem appropriate to so form the southerly slope of this dam as to allow for walks making up and down its slope.
So the actual “park” part of McMillan Park would be on the west side of First Street, which offered the beautiful vista that was so important to Olmsted’s father. The people who would use the park were also on Olmsted’s mind.
At the foot of the dam on the lower ground adjoining Bryant Street there would be opportunities for little lawns and playfields. The city is building up fast against this southerly boundary and already near First Street there are blocks of new buildings, so that this lower ground below the dam would afford an important playground for the people in the neighborhood…”
These “blocks of new buildings” belonged to the fast-growing neighborhood of Bloomingdale. It was almost entirely a white enclave, thanks to racially-restrictive covenants developers wrote into the deeds of the homes they built. But right next door was LeDroit Park, which also started as a white enclave, a gated one at that, but protesting black activists tore down the fence, and by 1910 many African American families were moving there, with more on the way. Howard University, just on the west side of the reservoir, also had a substantial African American community surrounding the campus. Bloomingdale was fighting hard to prevent “black encroachment,” and in that regard, the park and playground Frederick Law Olmsted was designing would play a part.
Olmsted’s designs for the park continued to evolve. The concept of an arch across First Street was abandoned, as was the next suggestion, a statue of Senator McMillan. Finally, the idea of a memorial fountain took hold. Funded by the citizens of Michigan, the fountain was a collaboration between sculptor Herbert Adams and architect Charles Platt. Platt designed the pink granite octagonal basin, bowl, and central pedestal that would showcase Adams’ statue of Three Graces. The fountain would be placed on the knoll between the reservoir and First Street, on a line with Channing Street. Pink granite steps would lead up from First Street to a plateau with benches and pathways running down the slope in different directions. (See photo at top of this post.) Altogether it was an impressive monument, completed in 1913. Here it is in situ:
With the memorial fountain serving as the beginning of the park, pathways led down the southern slope to a flatter area bordering Bryant Street that could serve as playfields. Here is Olmsted’s original planting plan for the southern section of McMillan Park. Click to enlarge and see the complete list of plantings, their quantity and location:
And here is an early plan for the playground itself. It was extensive and would be revised a few times before it was actually built. Click to enlarge.
By the time the playground was finally completed the track and “outdoor gymnasium” had been replaced by six tennis courts, and the wading pool was gone to provide more room for playfields, swings, and other equipment. Here is a portion of an aerial photograph from 1921 showing the finished southern section. To the far left is the Bryant Street Pumping Station with the playground’s tennis courts and field houses to the right. The children’s playfields are next to them. Up the slope to the right is the memorial fountain with its completed landscaping. Click to enlarge.
The planting plan for the northern section shows careful landscaping along the curvilinear path that would allow expansive views over the reservoir waters. Access to this part of the park from adjacent Howard University was open. Click to enlarge to read the full planting list.
Finally, here is the planting plan for the filter beds on both sides of First Street. The perimeter walkway is the main feature, flanked by a double row of cockspur thorns. In 1909, the engineers had figured out how to feed clean sand into the filters without the need for horses and carts, so the grass atop the filter beds would no longer get chewed up. Many of the manholes would remain open to supply ventilation to the workers in the filters however, so public use of the flat plain was still discouraged, which the cockspur thorns emphasized. Rows of Chinese cork trees flanked the service courts, along with other modest plantings. Climbing vines were encouraged to grow and eventually cover the tall concrete sand bins, softening the industrial look of the service courts. Click to enlarge to read the full list of plantings.
Here is a close-up of the filter beds and their completed plantings from a 1930 aerial photograph:
Park vs. Playground
The playground at McMillan Park, usually referred to as the Bloomingdale playground, was leased to the city’s Recreation Department. When it opened in 1913, it was immediately crowded with happy children. Here is a story from the Washington Post in July of that year:
However, all those children were white. The playground was segregated, as was the norm in the city during this period. Most of the numerous municipal playgrounds in the city were reserved for white children. There were also a few playgrounds set aside for African American children, and one was not far away at 5th and W Streets. It was very popular over the years, even if it was not as well-equipped as some of the white playgrounds. At the Bloomingdale playground there was a guard who ensured that only white children played there.
There was also a guard for the rest of McMillan Park, but his purview was different. Under the authority of the Corps of Engineers, his mandate was to “prevent minor misdemeanors and eject all persons not conducting themselves in the proper manner.” If there was real trouble, the city police could be called in. Since McMillan Park was a federal property, the guard did not apply any racial restrictions, making it one of the few recreation spaces in the District that did not prohibit African Americans. This closeup from the 1916 Powderly photograph (above) shows four African American youths at the memorial fountain donning roller skates.
African American residents enjoyed McMillan Park for picnics, Easter egg rolls and other leisure activities, including an occasional illegal one, such as playing craps. The winding road around the reservoir was also a favorite trysting place for Howard University students, who could easily stroll into the park from their campus. Even the filter beds, still technically off-limits, were occasionally breached, although open manholes continued to make it dangerous. In 1927, William Jones, a professor of sociology at Howard University, published Recreation and Amusement among Negroes in Washington, D.C.: A Sociological Analysis of the Negro in an Urban Environment. In it, he notes that “McMillan Park, located east of Howard University and surrounding the New Reservoir, has now been taken over almost exclusively by Negroes.”
African Americans continued to move into LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale over the years that followed, until by the 1930s, the former white enclaves were clearly outnumbered. This map from Prologue DC’s Mapping Segregation site demonstrates how things looked in 1934 and how racially restrictive covenants were trying to maintain a barrier to African American expansion.
The segregated playground and the non-segregated park continued side by side through the decades, even as the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods changed. In 1930, the District proposed putting a new garage for the District Highways Department just to the east of the Bryant Street Pumping Station, taking over a part of the Bloomingdale playground. It was government land, they said, and was the most logical spot. Surprisingly, white residents didn’t complain, but nearby African American residents did, even though they were prohibited from using the playground that was being usurped. The Bloomingdale Civic Association, started as an alternative to the all-white Bloomingdale Citizens Association, felt the garage harmed McMillan Park in general, which would in turn affect their property values. Edward Harris of the Civic Association put it this way:
The residents there desire that place remain as a park, just as it is now—whether it is a playground for white, or a playground for colored, or whatever it may be—but let it remain as a park.
Despite the objections, building proceeded. The six tennis courts at Bloomingdale playground were razed and replaced with a garage that is still there. That was the first incursion into McMillan Park. The second occurred in 1940 when the city built a new Fire Alarm Headquarters just above the playground along the winding paths of the park. But something else was on the horizon that would seriously affect both the park and the playground – world war. In the months before the Pearl Harbor attack, Washington was thinking hard about the city’s security. Two events occurred in 1941 that spelled the end of McMillan Park.
First, because the population of the city was continuing to expand, plans had been made for a second underground clear water reservoir at McMillan. It could also serve as a reserve water supply in emergency situations, giving its construction a new urgency. The engineers concluded that the only appropriate spot was to the south of the main entrance to the reservoir on First Street, the area that included the landscaped knoll and the McMillan Memorial Fountain. Second, fears of sabotage on the eve of World War II and concern over Washington’s water vulnerability led the Army to fence off the Washington Aqueduct intake at Great Falls, the city’s reservoirs, auxiliary works, and the two filtration plants (a rapid-sand filtration plant had been installed at Dalecarlia Reservoir in 1928). The McMillan reservoir and its winding driveway as well as the filtration plant on both sides of First Street have remained closed off ever since. Bloomingdale playground and the Bryant Street pumping station were also fenced in at this time. The pumping station had an armed guard stationed at each entrance.
The McMillan Fountain was dismantled and put into open-air storage. There were plans to erect it in a new location after the war, but various bureaucratic boondoggles prevented it. The knoll, along with the granite steps and pathways, trees and plantings, was leveled and then excavated to install the underground reservoir. A battery of anti-aircraft guns was erected in its place. With the centerpiece of McMillan Park now flattened and the rest fenced off, the park effectively ceased to exist.
At the end of the war, the fence around McMillan did not come down, lawmakers deciding the reservoirs and associated sites still needed protection. Facilities in McMillan continued to expand, taking over much of the land that had been a park. Upkeep of the trees and plantings deteriorated over time. It appears the DC Commissioners asked for the Bloomingdale playground to be reopened after the war, and it was briefly, but by 1952 had closed for good. By 1986, new, higher-tech filtration systems had made the slow-sand plant outmoded, and it was shut down after eight decades of sturdy service. The Army Corps of Engineers then transferred federal ownership of the 25-acre part of the filtration plant to the District government.
The McMillan fountain, some parts lost, some broken, and the rest lying in the overgrown fields of Fort Washington, was finally extracted thanks to the herculean efforts of local activists, led by Richard Sowell, Jr. The Herbert Adams statue of the Three Graces was re-erected at the Crispus Attucks Museum in Bloomingdale in 1983. Plans to provide a landscaped outdoor setting for the fountain were thwarted when the museum caught fire in 1990. The fountain was “battered, scarred, and scorched,” but not destroyed. Finally, in 1992, the statue, bowl and two of the recovered benches were moved to the First Street entrance to McMillan, where they still stand, behind the locked and guarded entry gates.
It should be remembered that McMillan Park was an addition to an already existing industrial facility. It was an attempt to beautify and enrich the area, but it was never the priority of the people in control, i.e. the Army Corps of Engineers. McMillan Park was first and foremost a reservoir and filtration plant, and all other issues, including public use of the park and playground, were secondary.
What to do with the 25-acre filtration plant land is a question that has embroiled the city government and local activists in a decades long dispute that is still ongoing, and will likely continue for some time to come.
Carrano, Joseph, Contested Play and Clean Water: McMillan Park, Race and the Built Environment in Washington, D.C., 1900-1941, University of Maryland, 2016
Cherkasky, Mara, and Shoenfeld, Sarah Jane, Bloomingdale Historic District, National Register of Historic Places nomination, 2017
Cherkasky, Mara, and Shoenfeld, Sarah Jane, “A Strictly White Residential Section”, Washington History, Spring 2017, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Hazen, Allen and E.D. Hardy. “Works for the Purification of the Water Supply of Washington, D.C.” Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 57, 1906
History of the Washington Aqueduct (1852-1952), Washington District Corps of Engineers, 1953
Kockritz, Justin, The Bryant Street Pumping Station and the McMillan Park Reservoir Historic District: A Question of Boundaries, School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, University of Maryland, 2009
McMillan Slow Sand Filtration Plant, Historic Preservation Report for the Proposed Redevelopment of the McMillan Slow Sand Filtration Plant, EHT Traceries, 2014
Olmsted Associates Records: Job Files, 1863-1971; Files; 2840; McMillan Park; Washington, D.C.; 1906-1913, Library of Congress
Scott, Pamela, Capital Engineers, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Development of Washington D.C. 1790-2004, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2011
Somma, Thomas P., “The McMillan Memorial Fountain: A Short History of a Lost Monument,” Washington History, Fall/Winter, 2002/2003, Vol. 14, No. 2, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Verbrugge, Martha, and Yingling, Drew, “The Politics of Play: The Struggle over Racial Segregation and Public Recreation in Washington, D.C., 1945-1950,” Washington History, Fall 2015, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Ways, Harry C., The Washington Aqueduct: 1852-1992, Baltimore, MD: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, 1996
Williams, Kim, McMillan Park Reservoir Historic District, National Register of Historic Places nomination, 2008
McMillan Park urban agriculture? As we experience horrible drought conditions on the entire West coast , and into Canada, where is produce/fresh vegetables/farmed fish to feed ourselves going to come from? We must adapt to the reality of climatic catastrophes like the drought on the entire Pacific coast, Central America and Mexico. We can grow millions of pounds of fresh produce and aquaponics(farmed fish) at our 25 acre McMillan Park, just stop DC mayor and her business partners from the VMP mega development on our public land. The massive “Monstrosity on Michigan Avenue”, traffic nightmare, env disaster, we can save our park!!
McMillan Park 25 acres public green space could be great urban gardening reclamation project so we started Committee for the McMillan Park Conservancy to advocate the international trend for adaptive re-use of historic sites. We need a Central Park large scale for kids, and outdoor concert stage, Glen Echo arts and classes campus, even outdoor schools are the trend to resist covid.
The 20 acre stable subterranean concrete structures are 14 feet in height, cool year round, preserving the waterworks is just wise, even as an emergency shelter or clean water system to mitigate low flows of the Potomac. Already a beautiful hybrid park and city utility for many decades, the Olmsted landscaping can be restored very inexpensively, and outdoor recreation with sunset views of the monuments is sitting right there. The people of Washington own this 25 acre green-space, was enjoyed as the only integrated park by DC African-American community 1905 to 1941.
call Daniel Goldon Wolkoff 202-232-8391 firstname.lastname@example.org join the McMillan Park Conservancy and support the Federal court case we filed in May. Its our city not Bowser’s!
Bob: Great article! Thanks for recognizing the work of Richard Sowell at the Crispus Attucks Museum. I hadn’t thought about him in quite awhile. He was a great neighborhood historian and advocate for DC Preservation. Thanks also for the fabulous 1916 photo of the park and the detail of the boys beside. So much for the notion that McMillan was never a park. – John Feeley
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Demolition on the subterranean sand filtration vaults under McMillan Park to the east of First Street began last week. The Park had been suffered to continue to exist by a stay of demolition executed by the DC Court of Appeals last winter because two “live” court cases were pending. But the Council Chair inserted an amendment into the Budget Support Act, passed August 10, 2021, that told the Court that the redevelopment plan was of such great importance to the Mayor and Council that no DC laws should protect it. The Court backed down and allowed demolition to begin. Readers of this article, with its haunting photos, who find this turn of events a travesty should write to Mayor Bowser and Chairman Phil Mendelson about the folly of interfering with the judicial process. At-Large Councilmember Robert White, Jr. should be thanked for attempting to remove the Chair’s amendment. Unfortunately only four other Councilmembers voted with him.