John J. Earley
While Horace Peaslee designed the architectural features of the park, the process for producing the exposed aggregate concrete was developed by John J. Earley.
John Joseph Earley was born in New York City in 1881, the son of a fourth generation Irish stone carver and ecclesiastical artist. At the age of seventeen, he entered his father’s studio in Rosslyn, Virginia, as an apprentice to learn sculpture, modelmaking, and stonecarving. Here, he developed skills that helped him in his later career.
After his father’s death, John Earley took over the studio and changed the focus of the work from stone and sculpture to plaster and stucco. The Earley Studio had no trouble getting contracts for both government and private work, including the remodeling of the interior of the White House during President Roosevelt’s first term, and the elaborate main lobby of the new building for the Willard Hotel, constructed in 1902 at Pennsylvania Avenue and 14thStreet NW in Washington, D.C.4
In 1906, Earley began investigating exposed aggregate concrete. He was attracted to the use of color in Byzantine architecture, and was interested in trying to duplicate this effect in concrete. In 1915, John Earley worked closely with the Commission of Fine Arts and produced a full-size mock up of a wall section for Meridian Hill Park. While Cass Gilbert, Sr., Chairman of the Commission, suggested that an acceptable finish for the walls might be produced by imitating Italian pebble mosaics, it was Earley that developed the technique of mixing the aggregate in the concrete and scrubbing the surface to produce a natural-looking pebble finish. Earley called the result “architectural concrete”, and it was used with great success for the walls, balustrades, benches, urns, and obelisks of Meridian Hill Park.
After Meridian Hill Park, Earley went on to design high-quality prefabricated mosaic and relief panels during the 1930’s. Earley’s polychrome mosaic panels were incorporated into both the U. S. Treasury and the U.S. Department of Justice buildings in Washington, D.C.5 Earley built five experimental houses in suburban Maryland, called the “Polychrome Houses”, that incorporated crushed rock, gravel, and even glass of different colors into the concrete wall panels.
From: Meridian Hill Park Cultural Landscape Report. NPS and architrave, p.c architects.
4 Frederick W. Cron. The Man Who Made Concrete Beautiful. (Centennial Publications, Fort Collins: CO 1977), p. 7.
5 HABS,p. 16