A thirteen-basin cascade fountain is one of the most dramatic features of Meridian Hill Park
Meridian Hill Park is a structured urban park located in the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Columbia Heights in the United States. The park is also unofficially known as "Malcolm X Park" by some city residents. The 12 acre (49,000 m²) formally landscaped site is maintained by the National Park Service as a part of Rock Creek Park, but is not contiguous with that much larger nearby park. Meridian Hill Park is bordered by 15th, 16th, W, and Euclid Streets NW, and sits on a prominent hill 1.5 miles (2.42 km) directly north of the White House. The park was designed and built between 1912 and 1936.
HistoryAt the time of Washington, D.C.'s creation in 1791, the land beneath present-day Meridian Hill Park was owned by Robert Peter, prosperous Georgetown merchant, and was known as Peter's Hill. In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson had a geographic marker placed on this large hill. Centered exactly north of the White House, this marker helped to establish a longitudinal meridian for the city and the nation: the "White House meridian" (see Washington meridian). After the War of 1812, Commodore David Porter, a naval hero of that war, acquired the hill in 1816 as part of a 110 acre tract of land that he had purchased; he named this property "Meridian Hill". On the brow of this prominent hill on his new estate, and close to the marker, Porter then built a large and famous mansion which he also named Meridian Hill. The home faced south with a dramatic view of the White House and the Potomac River beyond. Meridian Hill Park today shares this view.
After the onset of the Civil War, and with a strategic location overlooking the city, the Meridian Hill estate and mansion, along with the land of neighboring Columbian College (founded 1821, later moving and becoming George Washington University), were taken for use as an army encampment named Camp Cameron. This location was then at times referred to as being "on Georgetown Heights". Just after this wartime use ended, the mansion was badly damaged by a fire and then later razed. With Washington experiencing a time of growth and prosperity following the war, in 1867 the old Porter estate's land was subdivided into smaller lots. In 1887 former Senator John Brooks Henderson and his wife, Mary Foote Henderson, wealthy couple from Missouri, resettled in D.C. and purchased a large number of these real estate lots. On the west side of newly extended 16th Street, John and Mary built an elaborate stone home, designed to resemble a castle, and it indeed became known as Henderson Castle. Mary, with many friends in Congress, had grand plans for the area and for the hill. She proposed initially, without success, a couple of civic projects. First were two successive plans, by architect Paul J. Pelz in 1898 and by Franklin W. Smith in 1900, to construct a colossal presidential mansion on Meridian Hill to replace the White House; and then next was a plan to have the site be used for the planned Lincoln Memorial. When these did not work out, she focused on a park. And separately, with her own money and with architect George Oakley Totten, Jr., Mary planned and then built her own projects, which included a succession of large, elaborate embassies and mansions along both 15th and 16th Streets. These formal, well-made structures today frame Meridian Hill Park and help create a thematic visual appearance to the area immediately around the park.
In 1901, the Senate Park Commission (with its McMillan Plan) undertook a set of formal changes to Washington's civic appearance, most famously by reconfiguring the city's National Mall. The commission also decided, with Mary's input, that a park on Meridian Hill was appropriate, and proceeded to plan for its creation. Mary, strong-willed, intelligent, vigorous and well-connected, very much championed the park. Later, throughout the many years of park construction, she lobbied Congress to maintain the flow of funding necessary to complete the project.
The Federal Government purchased the land for the park in 1910, and began planning for its construction in 1912, with the Interior Department hiring landscape architect George Burnap to design a grand urban park modeled on parks found in European capitals. His plans were approved in early 1914, and were later modified by Horace Peaslee who took over as project architect; the design included an Italian Renaissance-style terraced fountain cascade with pools in the lower half, and gardens in a French Baroque style in the upper half. The upper portion was later simplified somewhat to focus on an open mall, suitable for gatherings and performances. The well-designed and carefully made walls, fountains, balustrades and benches were built with concrete aggregate, a newly-developed building material consisting of a specially washed and exposed-pebble surface set into the concrete substrate. This construction technique for the park was created by master craftsman John Joseph Earley; he and his team of artisans worked for years on the project. After two decades under construction, the grounds were declared complete, given park status, and then dedicated in 1936.
Following its completion, the park became popular with city residents.
The upper mall area was often used for concerts and gatherings. At a political rally in 1969, activist Angela Davis proposed renaming the park "Malcolm X Park", but ultimately this name change was not approved. And after 1970, with inner-city areas of Washington experiencing an economic decline, the park and its neighborhood suffered some decay for a number of years, with crime and vandalism becoming a problem. Upkeep of the park suffered, and the park itself became somewhat unsafe after dark, with drug dealing at times occurring there. About 1990, with civic revitalization activity occurring locally, neighborhood residents became more involved in the park's maintenance, and a group of citizens formed "Friends of Meridian Hill Park". This group organized volunteer nighttime patrols to combat crime, and lobbied the National Park Service to make improvements to the park. Since 2005 the Park Service has been working on a general restoration, carefully repairing and replacing the unique concrete structures as necessary, and replacing key utility systems. This ongoing work on the site continues today, and has resulted in a renovated asset for the city.
The park is now a place that is well-used and enjoyed by local residents. On Sunday afternoons during warm weather, people gather from 3 to 9 p.m. in the upper park to dance and participate in a Drum Circle. This activity, held in the park since the 1950s, regularly attracts both enthusiastic dancers and professional drummers.
In 1994 the park was designated a National Historic Landmark, as "an outstanding accomplishment of early 20th century Neoclassicist park design in the United States", and is today maintained as a part of Rock Creek Park..
Statues and features
The park plan conceived by Burnap and Peaslee was one composed to depict a formal Italian garden. The actual planting scheme was designed by New York landscape architects Vitale, Brinckerhoff, and Geiffert. In the past, gardens of this scope were generally reserved for aristocrats, but Meridian Hill Park, a product of democracy, was made for all people.
StatuesA number of finely-crafted sculptures and memorials have been placed in the park, some even as the grounds were under construction. These include:
- Serenity by sculptor Jose Clara, dedicated to the memory of Lt. Commander William Henry Scheutze (USN); it was carved out of a solid block of white marble and dedicated in 1924.
- Joan of Arc, a gift from the "Ladies of France in Exile in New York" in 1922. It is a bronze copy of a 1889 statue by Paul Dubois. The original is at the Reims Cathedral in France. In Washington, a city of many equestrian statues, this is the only one to depict a woman on horseback.
- Dante, an 11 1/2 foot bronze sculpture by Ettore Ximenes. The statute, created in 1921, stands on a pedestal of sea-green granite and represents Italian poet Dante Alighieri dressed in the robe of a scholar.
- James Buchanan Memorial, the 15th president of the United States, sculpted by Hans Schuler. This imposing 82 foot long memorial was dedicated in 1930, and is today the only memorial to James Buchanan in Washington.
- National Park Service
- Meridian Hill Park, NRHP 'travel itinerary' listing at the National Park Service
- Meridian Hill Park, Bounded by Fifteenth, Sixteenth, Euclid & W Streets, Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC: 5 color and 51 b&w photos, 25 drawings, 69 data pages and supplemental material, at Historic American Building Survey
- Washington Parks and People
- Washington Post Entertainment Guide
- Meridian Hill Neighborhood Association
- NPR: Why Urban Joes and CEOs Bang the Drum
- The Wild Man At The Center Of The World