Glen Echo Park combines a bucolic natural landscape with an eclectic mix of structures that reflect changing trends in educational, recreational, and amusement activities from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Its alluring landscape, perched on a verdant bluff overlooking the Potomac River, has captured the imagination of Washingtonians for over a century. In that time, Glen Echo has evolved from a suburban retreat to Chautauqua to trolley line amusement park, the remnants of which are embedded in the current landscape.
The Baltzley Brothers first envisioned the site as an upper-middle-class residential community and resort. When the rustic lodge that was the centerpiece of their development plans burned down, however, they sold a portion of their suburban tract in 1891 for use by the national Chautauqua movement. The fifty-third National Chautauqua Assembly was thus established to promote liberal arts and practical education in a camp-like environment. Glen Echo’s true success, however, came following its purchase in 1911 by the Washington Railway and Electric Company and its subsidiary, the Glen Echo Park Company. The latter developed the site as an amusement park, facilitated by the construction of a trolley line linking Washington, D.C. with its outlying suburbs.
Electric trolley companies, which often built end-of-the-line attractions, are responsible for the development of the amusement park as an American institution, separate from fairs and pleasure gardens. The parks encouraged trolley use, particularly on non-peak weekends, while the trolley lines utilized its excess electricity to power the rides. Trolley parks were common features along the urban fringes across the country, yet Glen Echo Park is among the few that survive, albeit not as a functioning amusement park. Offering an escape from urban life, such sites often began as picnic groves and expanded to include rides or mechanical amusements, dance halls, sports fields, boat rides, and swim facilities. The increased leisure time and disposable income of the post-industrial era, the American park movement, and the rise of innovations in recreation including the roller coaster and other thrill-seeking rides are also credited with the success of trolley parks. Conversely, postwar changes in entertainment trends, the 1950s and 1960s rise in suburbanization, segregation, and the development of theme parks all contributed to their decline.
Glen Echo Park was among those entertainment venues witnessing decline during the mid-twentieth century, due in part to its “whites only” segregation policy. In 1960 it was the site of an important event in Washington, D.C. civil rights history due to the decision of the park’s private owners to maintain it as racially segregated. After a sit-in at the carousel led to the arrest of a small group of local African American college students, civil rights supporters led an eleven-week-long picket of the park. Glen Echo Park subsequently desegregated for the 1961 season, but visitorship floundered and the park was only able to remain in operation until 1968.
Glen Echo Park was transferred to the National Park Service in 1970 to protect the scenic beauty of the site and the adjacent Clara Barton National Historic Site, the Clara Barton Parkway, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and the Potomac Palisades. The preserved Glen Echo Park still includes many of the iconic features of trolley line amusement parks of the era such as a bumper car pavilion, game arcade, carousel, dance hall, and remnants of a swimming pool. Paths and overlooks remain from the early days, including the Chautauqua’s main promenade and a picturesque medieval-styled tower designed by Victor Mindeleff and built of locally quarried granite that was part of the grand entrance. The extant “Yellow Barn,” formerly the car barn for the trolley, reflects its use as a transportation hub.
Most in evidence are remnants of Glen Echo’s 1920s and 1930s amusement park, including the streamlined Art Moderne entrance canopy and sign designed by Philadelphia architect Edward Schoeppe. Also designed in the Art Moderne mode is the penny arcade, shooting gallery, and popcorn concession now used as park offices, a visitor’s center, and children’s theater. These features form the northwestern boundary of the park, along MacArthur Boulevard, together with the Yellow Barn to the far west. Pavilions that housed the bumper car and “Cuddle Up” rides are now used for music and picnic events. They are located to the center of the park, along with the carousel and the picnic grove. The classic Dentzel carousel and the Spanish Ballroom dance hall maintain their original functions, still drawing crowds of delighted visitors. The ballroom is along the southwestern boundary, overlooking the woods and the Clara Barton Parkway. The Crystal Pool complex, at the southwest corner of the park, was demolished in 1982, but its Moderne entrance facade, first-aid building, and parts of the retaining wall remain. To the west, a pedestrian bridge crosses the Minnehaha Branch and leads to a parking area, to the southwest end of which is located the Clara Barton House. Glen Echo now operates in cooperation with local government as a park recreational site that maintains its lush and inviting landscape, as well as a center for arts and culture including exhibition, artist-in-residence, and performing arts venues.
Adams, Judith A. The American Amusement Park Industry: a history of technology and thrills. Edited by Edwin J. Perkins. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Kyriazi, Gary. The Great American Amusement Parks. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1976.
Samuelson, Dale. American Amusement Parks. St. Paul, Minnesota: MBJ Publications, 2001.
Scott, Gary, “Glen Echo Amusement Park (Glen Echo Historic District),” Montgomery County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1984. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Unrau, Harlan D. “Glen Echo Park, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Maryland,” Historic Structure Report. March 1987. Compiled for, and under the auspices of, the U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center, Eastern Team.