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George Washington Memorial Parkway

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Mount Vernon Memorial Highway
1928–1932, 1930–1965, Gilmore Clarke, landscape architect; Jay Downer, engineer. From I-495 (north) to U.S. 1 (south)
  • George Washington Memorial Parkway (Mount Vernon Memorial Highway) (Virginia Division of Historic Resources)

Skirting the west bank of the Potomac from north of Washington, D.C., south to Mount Vernon, a length of approximately 25 miles, the parkway provides scenic views of the river, landscape, and Washington, as well as access to various memorials and institutions. The concept of a “great road” linking Mount Vernon and Washington was envisioned as early as 1872 and then revived with the McMillan Commission study of 1901–1902. The sesquicentennial fervor of 1926 and the vision of recreational uses in the new motor age brought a new study in 1927 by Charles W. Eliot, who served as director of planning for the National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The CapperCramton Act of 1930 provided the initial funds, and construction began under the aegis of the Bureau of Public Roads. Opened to traffic in 1932 as part of the bicentennial celebration of Washington's birth, the initial section ran from the Virginia terminus of Memorial Bridge at the north, south through downtown Alexandria to Mount Vernon, a length of 15.5 miles. Highly praised at the time, it was considered by an engineering publication to be “America's Most Modern Motorway.” Initially named the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, it was renamed the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The 9.7-mile section to the north, from Memorial Bridge to I-495 (the Capital Beltway), was planned almost immediately, but took until the 1960s for completion. The initial designers, Clarke and Downer, and the arborist, Henry Nye, had all worked for the Westchester, New York, County Parkway Commission and had designed a series of path-breaking parkways in the years after World War I. Clarke defined the parkway as a “strip of public land dedicated to recreation, over which abutting owners have no right of light, air, or access.” Enjoyment of nature on a pleasure drive is the essential concept of a parkway, but unfortunately in recent years that idea has been lost as parkways have come to be viewed simply as transportation corridors. The GWPK still retains many of the virtues of the parkway concept with a carefully scripted sequence of nature and the glories of architecture, along with notable design features such as stone-faced arched bridges, concrete slab base, and beveled curbing. The views across to Washington, D.C., are spectacular.

Writing Credits

Richard Guy Wilson et al.


What's Nearby


Richard Guy Wilson et al., "George Washington Memorial Parkway", [Washington, District of Columbia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont, Richard Guy Wilson and contributors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 44-45.

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