McPherson Square Cultural Landscape

An aerial image of the urban fabric of downtown Washington DC, with McPherson and Lafayette Squares kitty-corner to one another.
Aerial view of McPherson and Lafayette Squares.

HABS, US Library of Congress

McPherson Square is a 1.66-acre park lying in the heart of the central business district in northwest Washington, DC. It occupies an entire city square surrounded by K Street to the north, I Street to the south, and 15th Street to the east and west.

The circulation system, built in 1930 - 1931, determines the way space is organized within the park and its orientation follows the path of Vermont Avenue. It comprises a pair of parallel walks along the Vermont Avenue axis, a single walk on the opposite axis, and two narrow curving walks on the east and west sides. All walks lead to the center, where a circular area surrounds the statue of the Civil War hero, Union Brigadier General James B. McPherson.

The sculpture depicts General McPherson mounted on a horse and turning in the saddle to face west, surveying a field of battle. The 12-foot bronze statue stands on a 15-foot granite pedestal. Large deciduous trees line the boundaries of the park and are placed randomly along the major walks, emphasizing the spatial pattern. McPherson Square is heavily used by local residents, office workers, and tourists.
A view looking up at the statue of General James B. McPherson astride his
View of the General James B. McPherson statue from the west

NPS (2004)

Thousands of commuters pass through daily, many heading to and from the McPherson Square Metro stop south of the square. Others gather in the park for lunch. Plantings in McPherson Square consist primarily of large deciduous trees placed on six grass panels, whose shape is determined by the walk system. The park is symmetrical along the diagonal, northeast - southwest axis of the former Vermont Avenue corridor (removed in 1876). Trees are placed along the boundaries and most trees are native deciduous species; a few are exotics, such as the large Chinese elm and three Japanese sophoras.

The only tree that actually stands in the center of a panel rather than near an edge is the huge red oak in the southern triangular panel; this tree probably dates from the late nineteenth century and was likely one of the first trees planted. A large gingko near the sidewalk in this triangle may also date from before 1920. In 1981, magnolias and crabapples were planted around the statue plaza. The primary vistas from McPherson Square are along the parallel walks that follow the line of Vermont Avenue through the park. Historically, there was a Chinese Elm tree located near the sidewalk. However, the tree is no longer present, and the circulation was slightly modified in 2010 to account for the removal of the tree.

Looking southwest along this axis provides a vista of the northeast corner of Lafayette Park, one block away. The bus shelter obstructs this vista. Looking northeast affords a vista of Thomas Circle, at the intersection of Vermont Avenue with 15th Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Also significant are the reciprocal views between McPherson Square and the surrounding mid-twentieth-century buildings.

The statue remains in its original location. The circulation system dating to 1930-31 is intact, with rehabilitation having been done in 2010. Spatial organization and land use have not changed greatly, except for increasing numbers of pedestrians. Vegetation retains medium integrity to the 1930-31 planting plan; though there have been removals and replacements of trees, both trees and lawns have kept essentially the same layout. The hedges that formerly surrounded the major grass panels have been removed, as have several trees added in the 1980s that partly blocked the vistas along the Vermont Avenue corridor. Most small-scale features date from the 1960s or later, with the exception of the concrete drinking fountain, which does not function.

Quick Facts

  • Cultural Landscape Type: Designed
  • National Register Significance Level: National
  • National Register Significance Criteria: A,B,C
  • Period of Significance: 1791; 1867-1933

National Mall and Memorial Parks

Last updated: October 8, 2021