Marion Park

Playground equipment in Marion Park
Playground equipment in Marion Park.

NPS Photo

Bound by 4th & 6th Streets and at the intersection of E Street and South Carolina Avenue, Marion Park has become one of the most popular public parks located on Capitol Hill, with its interesting walkways and beautiful vegetation. It is the perfect place to take children for a stroll to the playground, to get exercise, or to enjoy a snack in the grass under any of the many ornamental trees.

What is known today as “Marion Park” was first laid out in 1791 as an unassigned open reservation in Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for the city of Washington, modified by Andrew Ellicott, and surveyed by Benjamin Banneker. Despite its proximity to the Capitol and the Navy Yard, the area around the “park” remained largely undeveloped until the mid-19th century. The period between 1884-1905 marked one of the most substantial periods of development for the space, for within that period, it was officially laid out as a formal public park, graded, planted, and rehabilitated by the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds (OPBG). In 1884, the OPBG combined two small triangular reservations into one reservation for the first time and declared it “Reservation 18.” The reservation occupied a rectangular footprint that was bifurcated by 5th Street, S.E.; and a traffic circle was originally located at the center of the park. Also, in 1884, the initial design of the park was laid out to be in keeping with 19th-century ideas, with curved walkways and a central focal element.

Aerial Black and White Photo of Marion Park
Aerial Black and White Photo of Marion Park

Library of Congress

In 1887, Reservation 18 officially became “Marion Park” when the OPBG decided to name the reservation along South Carolina Avenue, S.E. after South Carolina military officer Brigadier General Francis Marion, nicknamed “the Swamp Fox.” Though considered a hero of the American Revolution to many South Carolinians, Marion became a controversial figure due to his fighting against Cherokee Native Americans and owning enslaved men, women, and children. It is also around this that time that a large iron vase was installed at the center of the park, within the traffic circle. Marion Park was rehabilitated again in 1905, resulting in new plantings and the installation of a large, central, concrete fountain in place of the vase.

Though Washington was a segregated city, public parks were among the few public areas in the city that were not officially segregated, and Marion Park was among the few public spaces where black and white communities overlapped. Persistent lobbying by white residents resulted in physical changes to Marion Park, including the removal of the central fountain, which greatly altered the park’s spatial organization. These changes specifically responded to white residents’ desires to exclude black children from using the park and were designed to restrict and regulate how black residents could use the park. Thus, the alterations made to Marion Park are representative of race relations throughout the city in the era of Jim Crow, when black residents had little to no agency in the public realm. By 1962, the park had greatly deteriorated, which prompted the National Park Service to reevaluate the state of the park. In 1964, the park was redesigned based on contemporary principles of modern landscape design, and for the next several years, the park underwent additional improvements as part of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautification program.

Last updated: February 14, 2021

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The Capitol Hill Parks are a part of the portfolio of parkland and historic sites of National Capital Parks-East.

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