WHENCE THE PARK
The First Vision
The first official interest in creating Rock Creek Park stemmed from dissatisfaction with the White House.
By the 1860s the executive mansion, less hallowed by tradition than it would later become, was judged to have serious shortcomings. As yet unexpanded by wings, the house accommodated offices as well as rooms of state and living quarters, yielding presidents and their families little privacy. The pestilential Washington City Canal along present-day Constitution Avenue disgorged its wastes in the shallows of the Potomac River directly below the mansion grounds (reclamation of the Potomac flats to fill in the Washington Monument grounds and create Potomac Park was a generation away). To escape this crowded and unhealthful situation, President Abraham Lincoln often removed to a cottage at the Soldiers Home, north of the Capitol beyond the old Washington City limits.
On June 25, 1866, the United States Senate directed its Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds "to inquire whether a tract of land of not less than three hundred and fifty acres, adjoining, or very near this city, can be obtained for a park and site for a presidential mansion, which shall combine convenience of access, healthfulness, good water, and capability of adornment." Sensing that it may have overly limited its options, the Senate passed another resolution five days later lowering the minimum size to 100 acres. Then realizing the need for professional landscape gardener or topographical engineer to examine the different tracts of land offered to the committee" and to report on their suitability for the desired purpose. 
Sen. B. Gratz Brown of Missouri, chairman of the Public Buildings and Grounds committee, asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to detail a Corps of Engineers officer to the task. The assignment fell to Maj. Nathaniel Michler, a West Point graduate who had been breveted brigadier general for Civil War service. After examining "the many beautiful localities to be found in the vicinity of the capital, and having caused an accurate and detailed survey of its environs to be made," Michler submitted his report to the committee on January 29, 1867. 
Departing from the apparent intent of the Senate, Michler chose to separate the subjects of the presidential mansion site and the park. The mansion should be a secluded retreat, he suggested, whereas the park should be generally accessible. His primary interest was evident from the greater attention and eloquence he lavished on the park proposal, beginning with his brief for urban parks in general:
The valley of Rock Creek in the District of Columbia, Michler found, lent itself admirably to park treatment:
In his further description of the valley, Michler elaborated on how its natural qualities might be improved upon:
Michler urged swift action to acquire sufficient land before it became occupied by "costly suburban villas." He outlined two park alternatives. The first, embracing 2,540 acres, would include several of the Civil War defenses of Washington, "which have become historical, and from the parapets of which extensive views can be had." He estimated the acquisition cost at $508,000. The second, "[i]n case my recommendations should be considered too extravagant," encompassed 1,800 acres at an estimated cost of $360,000. Another $100,000 would be needed initially for enclosing the grounds, improving and repairing existing drives and walks, and constructing others. 
Senator Brown immediately introduced legislation to acquire a tract "along and adjacent to Rock creek embraced within the limits and designations of the survey made by Brigadier General N. Michler...for the purposes of a public park, free to all persons under such regulations as to police and government as may by proper authority be established." The bill would constitute a committee of Maj. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, and Michler to negotiate with the landowners and make purchase agreements. The agreements would be subject to congressional approval. The bill provided for no appropriation (nor did it make any mention of a presidential mansion site). 
Brown brought his bill to the Senate floor on February 19. "The character of the ground around and adjacent to [Rock Creek] is exactly suited to the purposes we desire," he told his colleagues. "It has running water; it has rugged hills; it has picturesque scenery; it has abundance of varied forest timber; it has a native undergrowth blushing with beauty. It has the tangled vine and the clustering wild-flower, and the quiet mosses gray with age, and indeed a thousand imprints of native adornment that no hand of art could ever equal in its most imitative mood." 
Rising to still greater heights of rhapsody, Brown proclaimed the special value of the proposed park to congressmen and government officials:
Like Michler, Brown counseled haste to acquire the land before its increase in value, "now that the uncertainty with which sectional discord and disunion so long threatened the stability of the capital has passed away." The cost would be less than $500,000, he stated--"a mere trifle of expenditure for 'a thing of beauty' which will prove 'a joy forever."' 
Not all were moved by Brown's appeal. "We know very well how much below the actual costs of lands that the Government proposes to buy are the estimates that are made beforehand of what they will cost...," Sen. Samuel J. Kirkwood of Iowa retorted. "I think these lands will not cost us much less than a million dollars to begin with, and God knows how many millions it will cost to improve them Let us wait until the country is in a more flourishing condition before we do it." 
Although the Senate passed the bill the next day by a vote of 28 to 7, Kirkwood's position prevailed. The House tabled the bill in the last hours of the 39th Congress on March 2.  B. Gratz Brown did not return to the next Congress, and the measure was not reintroduced by another champion.
Last Updated: 31-Jul-2003