National Capital Parks
A History
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Original Three Federal Commissioners 1791—1802

By the act of July 16, 1790, which really established the park system in the District of Columbia, authority was given to the President of the United States to appoint three Commissioners to lay out a district for the permanent seat of the Government of the United States. [1] On January 22, 1791, President Washington appointed three Commissioners— Daniel Carroll and Thomas Johnson of Maryland, and David Stuart of Virginia. [2] Into the hands of these men, the fate of the new Capital was entrusted. To complete the survey of the new district, Pierre Charles L'Enfant was appointed the first United States City Surveyor. From the very beginning it was the intention to secure for the Capital city a Government purely federal in character and removed from all local influence. [3] The Commissioners were directed by the President to provide suitable buildings for the Congress, the President, and other Government departments. They had the authority "To purchase or accept such quantity of land as the President shall deem proper for the use of the United States." [4] They also were responsible for the protection and care of all public lands, from which the park system of the Nation's Capital evolved. The present office of National Capital Parks is the direct legal successor to the office of the original three Federal Commissioners appointed by President Washington in 1791.

President Washington was intensely interested in the establishment of the seat of Government on the banks of the Potomac. To expedite the arrangements with the original proprietors of the selected territory, he met with them and the Commissioners on the afternoon of March 29, 1791. [5] A written agreement was signed by the nineteen original proprietors on March 30, 1791. [6] Under the terms of this agreement, the land owners agreed to convey to the United States Government, free of cost, such portions of their farms as were needed for streets, parks, and other public reservations, and to sell such land as was needed for Government buildings and public improvements at about $66 per acre. [7] The remaining land was to be laid out in building lots and apportioned equally between the Federal Government and the original owners. [8] Considering what Washington accomplished by this agreement, it might well be considered his most successful bargain. He acquired for the United States, in addition to the donated street areas, seventeen reservations by purchase. The foundation of the National Capital Parks rests on these seventeen reservations and donated street areas. In the area of the old city (bounded by the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and Florida avenue) the entire park system, totaling 301 reservations, was developed by 1898 on land acquired by the Government in 1791 by means of the agreement with the original land owners. [9]

L'Enfant Plan

According to the L'Enfant plan of Washington, the National Capital was to be a city of beautiful parks. The area from the Capitol to the proposed site for a monument to Washington was envisioned as a formal park bordered by a canal with broad basins and imposing fountains. There was to be a park surrounding the President's House. Because the street areas were so broad, there would be many small areas suitable for future park treatment. Although modern Washington follows basically the design of the L'Enfant plan, there was considerable deviation from that plan in the early history of the city. The Commissioners, immersed in the program of public building and the sale of lots, were unable to devote the needed time and effort to park development. A dispute between the Commissioners and Major L'Enfant, which ultimately led to the dismissal of the brilliant planner, did not help the development of parks in the Nation's Capital. However, the real foundation of the present park system was actually established with the original plan of Washington.

An accomplishment of the Commissioners of considerable importance was the completion of the President's House.

The L'Enfant Map of Washington

White House

Under the direction of the Federal Commissioners work was undertaken on the first public building erected in Washington, the cornerstone having been laid on October 13, 1792. The architect of the President's House was James Hoban of Charleston, South Carolina. The building was first occupied by President and Mrs. John Adams in November of 1800. At that time, the Federal Commissioners had complete charge of the construction and maintenance of the President's House. Today, the National Capital Parks office as the legal successor to the office of the Federal Commissioners administers the fiscal and personnel matters of the Executive Mansion and Grounds for the President of the United States.

The White House
The White House

Superintendent of Public Buildings

By the act of May 1, 1802 (2 Stat. 175) the office of the Federal Commissioners was abolished, and their duties devolved upon a Superintendent, appointed by the President of the United States. Thomas Munroe was appointed Superintendent of Public Buildings on June 1, 1802. [10] Although public grounds was not mentioned in the title of the office, he actually had complete control of all public grounds. His duties were identical with those of the original three Commissioners.

An act of May 3, 1802 (2 Stat. 195), incorporated the city of Washington, giving the citizens for the first time a voice in purely local affairs. [11] It was realized that there were certain municipal obligations that were entirely local in character. However, only those duties, which by the strongest argument could be shown to be purely local in character were delegated to the local officials. The Municipal Government was given the right to erect necessary bridges and repair streets, avenues, drains, and sewers; however, all questions regarding the laying out of streets, control of land division and records, and sales of land were zealously retained by the Superintendent of Public Buildings, acting as the representative of the Federal Government. [12] At this early time, the National character of the city of Washington was firmly realized. Accordingly, the parks of the Nation's Capital remained under Federal control.

Commissioner of Public Buildings

By the act of April 29, 1816 (3 Stat. 324), the office of the Superintendent was abolished and all his duties devolved upon a Commissioner of Public Buildings, Samuel Lane was appointed the Commissioner of Public Buildings on May 1, 1816. [13] Following the burning of the public buildings by the British in 1814, a special board of Commissioners was set up to superintend the reconstruction of those buildings. This special board assumed the duties of the Superintendent relating to the public building program, while the Superintendent was chiefly concerned with surveying work. This special board was abolished by the act of April 29, 1816, and the office of Public Buildings and Public Grounds was reunited as it had begun in 1790. [14] The duties of the Federal Commissioner of 1816 were identical with those of the original three Commissioners appointed by Washington in 1791, thus carrying out the legal continuity of the office.

Interior Department Assumes Control of the Parks

An important change in the legal status of the park system of the National Capital occurred when the Department of the Interior was created and given direct control over the park system of the Nation's Capital in 1849. Up to March of 1849, the three Federal Commissioners, the Superintendent, and the Commissioner of Public Buildings had all served directly under the President. The act of Congress creating the Department of the Interior provided in Section 9, "That the supervisory and appellate Powers now exercised by the President of the United States over the Commissioner of Public Buildings shall be exercised by the Secretary of the Interior." [15]

Important Developments, 1790—1867

From 1790 to 1867, the Office of Public Buildings, which included the administration of grounds, effected certain important accomplishments. During these formative years, many of the Capital's most important park areas were acquired. Among these were the Mall, the Monument Grounds, the Capitol Grounds, and the President's Park. Other parks were created from time to time on the remaining reservations, the most important being Lafayette, Franklin, and Garfield Parks. Taking advantage of the broad intersections, many reservations were made available for future development. These reservations have added a unique character to the National Capital Parks. In this manner, 301 separate park reservations were eventually established on the lands acquired from the original proprietors in 1791. Some progress was made toward the development of a planned park system. On July 8, 1851, J. A. Downing was appointed by President Fillmore as "Rural Architect" to lay out the public parks of Washington. [16] His service in this capacity was cut short when he died by drowning in a steamboat accident on the Hudson river on July 25, 1852. [17] In 1853, the first steps were taken toward the development of the Mall between the Capitol and the uncompleted shaft of the Washington Monument, and an informal landscape park treatment was adopted. [18] Although this development of the all fell far short of the grand avenue proposed in 1791 by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, it was a definite beginning; and as such, occupies an important place in the development of the National Capital Parks.

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Last Updated: 31-Jul-2003