Washington DC -- A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary
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Franklin Square Fountain
NPS Photo and Franklin Park, children swimming in pool, c. 1955Historical Society of Washington, DC

Franklin Square is an active and bustling area of downtown Washington, D.C. The federal government purchased the square in 1832 to protect a spring that supplied fresh water to the White House. It was later incorporated into the public reservations of the District of Columbia where it was transformed into a picturesque landscape of winding paths, a variety of trees and a central fountain by 1872. In 1936, the entire park was redesigned as part of an initiative by the National Park Service and the Public Works Administration. The current park, which retains most of its 1936 design, features formal, symmetrical walkways that form three ellipses around a central plaza with a fountain in the center. A statue commemorating Commodore John Barry, a Revolutionary War hero, was placed along the west side of the park in 1914.

Franklin Square

One of the most prominent buildings surrounding this square is the Franklin School, which was designed by Adolph Cluss and completed in 1868. The school was praised for its advanced design, winning prizes for its modern architecture at both the Vienna Exposition in 1873 and the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876. The school trustees declared that the construction of such buildings as Franklin School “will do much to redeem us from the imputation so often made that the city of Washington is mere dependent upon Government and that it does nothing itself for the advancement of its citizens.” It was at this school that Alexander Graham Bell produced the first wireless message. On June 3, 1880, Bell sent a message over a beam of light to a window in a building at 1325 L Street, NW, directly across from the school, across the park.

Franklin School and statue of Commodore Barry
NPS Photos

In the early morning of April 26, 1951, the square became the site of another important scientific advancement when scientist Charles H. Townes, while visiting the park, conceived of the "maser principle", which led to the invention of the laser, for which he received the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics. In his memoir, Townes recalled his breakthrough moment in developing the laser as he sat on a park bench and admired the azaleas in bloom. At the time of his breakthrough, Townes, who was on the faculty of Columbia University, was in Washington to attend meetings of the Navy Millimeter Committee and the American Physical Society. He was staying at the nearby Franklin Park Hotel, which stood at 1332 I Street, NW.

Franklin Square

Other important sites surrounded Franklin Square during its heyday. Many of these have been replaced by office buildings. Examples include the house where Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of Little Lord Fauntleroy, lived at 1219 I Street, and the Capitol Garage, constructed in 1926 at 1312-1320 New York Avenue. The surviving historic buildings, including the Franklin School and the Almas Temple, are now surrounded by monumental office buildings.

Franklin Square is a public park that is accessible to the public.


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