Meridian Hill Park is an excellent example of a formal park and garden from the turn of the nineteenth century. Its development was guided by the National Commission of Fine Arts, founded in 1910 and chaired initially by Daniel Burnham. An element of the Senate Park Commission Plan, Meridian Hill Park was intended as a kind of show piece for the District of Columbia, as architect Horace Peaslee commented in 1918, when he described his design as a “display garden which shall be comparable to the great public gardens of Rome, Paris and other national capitals.”
The Senate Park Commission selected a site between 16th and 15th streets NW, 1.5 miles north of the White House. This area was then largely undeveloped and outside of the boundaries of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the city. In the nineteenth century, the land was occupied by a mansion built in 1819, where John Quincy Adams lived when he left the presidency. After the mansion burned in the 1860s, the Wayland Seminary, a Baptist institution dedicated to the education of African American teachers and ministers, was established on what is today’s the park’s northeast side. Some dwellings were subsequently erected near the site, many occupied by working-class African Americans who were displaced once the Commission decided to turn the land into a park. Also in the nineteenth century, the environs of Meridian Hill was the site of Columbia College, the precursor to George Washington University.
Situated at the intersection of the coastal plain and the foothills of the Piedmont, the site bore the name of Meridian Hill after the supposed location of the central meridian of the District of Columbia. In fact, the Senate Park Commission regarded this proposed park site and adjacent 16th Street as the city’s northern portal, comparable to the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, where the terraced Pincian Hill overlooks the piazza towards the cupola of Saint Peter’s Cathedral. In Washington, the view and the focal point paralleled those in Rome: the proposed park on Meridian Hill would offer vistas in the direction of the Capitol, the political center of the country. As it Rome, it also included an obelisk: the Egyptian monolith at the Piazza del Popolo has an American counterpart in the Washington Monument.
In 1906, Mary Foote Henderson, an owner of land near Meridian Hill and the wife of Missouri senator John Brooks Henderson, began lobbying Congress for a park and other improvements along the capital’s northern periphery. These efforts paid off in 1910, when the Senate decided to acquire the 11 acres, and in 1913, when landscape architect George Elberton Burnap prepared the original design for Meridian Hill Park. Construction began the following year, but the park took 22 years to complete, with the final phase of work slowed slowing during the Depression.
From the beginning, Burnap had decided to use the site’s elevation change of 60 to 75 feet as a key feature of the design, basing his scheme on French and Italian concepts and included a belvedere terrace, formal gardens, fountains, woods, and a cascade. Following a government-sponsored trip to Europe in 1914, Burnap and his collaborator and former student, Horace Peaslee, adopted further design features from Italian Renaissance and Baroque gardens. These included a replica of a section of the wall at the Boboli gardens, fountains similar to the ones on the terrace in front of Villa Medici in Rome, and ground-plane patterning frequently found in the gardens they visited. The most striking design feature of the park is the central cascade, which they based on the water chains of the Casino della Villa Farnese in Caprarola and possibly of the villas d’Este Cernobbio on Lake Como and Torlonia in Frascati. Already the Senate Park Commission had established as a goal the increased presence of water in the public urban realm, given the hot climate of Washington’s summers. The upper part of the park, which opened in 1923, was defined by an open lawn flanked by tree-lined pathways that converge at the upper terrace and create a forced perspective; this section of the park takes its design cues from French seventeenth-century gardens with their extensive open greenswards.
When Peaslee took over Burnap’s position as landscape architect in the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds in 1917, he simplified the park’s design, eliminating features like an elaborate flower garden and an elegant drive with drop-off point on the upper terrace. Burnap and Peaslee produced an eclectic design that appropriated forms originally developed to satisfy the representational and iconographical ambitions of the autocrats of Renaissance Italy, but they demonstrated, especially in their choice of materials, how these forms could be redeployed in the design of a public park meant to represent the values of a young democratic nation. All hard surfaces and elements in the park were built of exposed aggregate concrete, which, as developed by contractor John Joseph Earley, included Potomac River pebbles. Not only did this type of concrete produce effects that mimicked pebble mosaic work in Italian gardens, it also saved considerable expense.
The hard lines of the park’s architecture were softened by the tree and shrub plantings designed by Italian-born landscape architect Ferruccio Vitale to complement the built structures. A scheme to cover the aggregate concrete walls with different species of vines, which would have further softened the hard edges, was never carried out. Nor was another of Peaslee’s ideas—painting the interior of the pools a mossy color so they would resemble the moss-covered pools in old Italian gardens.
By the time Meridian Hill Park was finished, the adjacent area had become one of the nation’s largest African American urban communities. Though the nearby U Street Corridor, known as “Black Broadway,” was the neighborhood’s thriving cultural and commercial center, the park seems to have been patronized mainly by white Washingtonians, as photographs of starlight concerts in the 1940s and 1950s attest. In the late 1960s, however, the park became the location for rallies organized by African Americans, including those fighting for civil rights and protesting urban renewal schemes that targeted black neighborhoods like Shaw, an area not far from the park. By 1969, Angela Dais and others involved in the Black Power movement were referring to Meridian Hill as Malcolm X Park, a name that achieved semi-official status in the intervening decades. Even as the surrounding neighborhood suffered disinvestment and decline in the aftermath of the 1968 riots, the park remained a community gathering space (a summer drum circle that began in the 1960s remains a weekly seasonal tradition today). Eventually, however, deferred maintenance and increased crime took a toll on the park. By the time Friends of Meridian Hill Park was organized in 1990, the park was regarded as decrepit and dangerous. Since 2003, the National Park Service has been working to restore the park, an effort that has paralleled the rapid gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood.
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