National Capital Parks
A History
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PARKS OF THE NATIONAL CAPITAL, 1867-1933 (continued)

National Character of Capital's Parks

During these years the National character of the parks was firmly realized. The act of June 11, 1878, establishing the present form of government for the District of Columbia clearly indicated that Congress intended to relinquish to the District Commissioners only such matters as belonged purely to the local interests. A provision in that act clearly stated, "That nothing herein contained shall be construed as transferring from the United States authorities any of the public works within the District of Columbia now under the control or supervision of said authorities." [46] The Park System was included in the general classification of Public Works.

National Capital Park System Defined, 1898

Although the parks had always been under Federal control, the act of July 1, 1898 further clarified the position of the parks by stating they were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Chief Engineer, United States Army, representing the Federal Government. At the same time, the park system of the National Capital was defined as constituting "all public spaces laid down as reservations on the map of 1894, accompanying the annual report for 1894 of the Officer in Charge of Public Buildings and Grounds." [47] The parks of the National Capital were recognized as National parks, and were to be developed for the enjoyment and pleasure of the people of the United States.

Map of the City of Washington, 1894

Director of Public Buildings and Public Parks in the National Capital, 1925—1933

An act approved February 26, 1925, created the independent office of the Director of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, responsible directly to the President of the United States. [48] All the duties previously performed by the Officer in Charge of Public Buildings and Grounds devolved upon this Director. At the same time the act consolidated the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds and the Office of Superintendent of the State, War and Navy Department buildings into a single office. In accordance with this act, Lt. Col, C. O. Sherrill was appointed the first Director on February 26, 1925. He was followed in office by Lt. Col. Ulysses S Grant, III.

It is important to grasp the continuity of the Office. In 1791, there was one office, having charge of the maintenance, protection, and operation of all Government properties in Washington. This office consisted of the three Federal Commissioners. As time passed and the city expended, the responsibilities of the office became increasingly numerous. Gradually other Government agencies assumed certain duties once performed by the Federal Commissioners. However, Director Grant's office was the legal successor to these Commissioners. He had many of the same powers exercised by the original three Federal Commissioners. He had charge of the maintenance, care, and repair of the Executive Mansion and Grounds, and was in charge of all public buildings and parks. Director Grant also had certain duties, which the Commissioners of 1791 did not possess. The growth of the city and the Government had necessitated new and different responsibilities. An example was the fact that the Director soon became a member and disbursing officer of numerous commissions, established to facilitate the completion of certain important projects in the National Capital. It should be clearly realized that while certain duties pertaining to the office of the original three Federal Commissioners of 1791 changed from time to time, the office never ceased to operate.

National Capital Park and Planning Commission

Of considerable importance during the period 1925—1933, was the amount of time given to comprehensive park planning, a field which is receiving even wider attention today. The name of the National Capital Park Commission, which had been authorized in 1924, was changed to the National Capital Park and Planning Commission and its functions were greatly enlarged by act of Congress, April 30, 1926. The National Capital Park and Planning Commission was made responsible for the development of a comprehensive, consistent, and coordinated plan for the National Capital and its environs in the States of Maryland and Virginia. It was charged with the task of preventing the pollution of Rock Creek, and the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. [49] It was also authorized to purchase lands for future park development. The latter power was of extreme significance in the development of a greater National Capital park system.

As a beginning, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission undertook a careful study of the L'Enfant papers. [50] The Commission desired to be fully aware of the ideas, which motivated L'Enfant in the making of the original plan. Moreover, the Commission wished to be thoroughly familiar with the original plan, in order to be able to critically evaluate certain modifications in the basic plan, which might have to be made to meet the needs of an expanding city. [51]

The Commission continued a broad system of parkway planning. In this connection, authorization for the acquisition and development of the George Washington Memorial Parkway was approved by act of Congress, May 29, 1930. In all these plans the office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital was vitally concerned. In the act granting additional responsibilities to the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the Director of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital was named Executive and Disbursing Officer of the Commission. In the field of Planning, park officials followed the McMillan plan of 1901 as far as was practicable. [52]

Important Developments, 1925-1933

The growth and development of the National Capital Parks during the years 1925-1933 was extensive in area, and varied in important accomplishments. Several important Civil War forts, which were once a part of the defenses of Washington, were acquired. Interest was revived in a Forts Drive project, which was planned to encircle the city, making use of the line of Civil War defenses. Among these defenses were Fort Bayard, Fort Stevens, Fort Stanton, Fort Slocum, Fort Mahen, and Fort Reno parks. In connection with a broad parkway development the following parkways were developed: Whitehaven, Klingle Valley, Shepherd, George Washington Memorial, and the Oxon Run park ways. Other important acquisitions were Soapstone Valley, Lafayette Recreation Center, Sections C, F, G, and E of Anacostia Park, Turkey Thicket Playground, and Barnard Hill.

Arlington Memorial Bridge

Among the important accomplishments was the construction of the Arlington Memorial Bridge, which had been authorized by act of Congress, approved February 24, 1925. [53] McKim, Mead and White of New York City were the architects and John Nagle was the designing engineer. The formal opening of this magnificent structure occurred on January 16, 1932, with President Herbert Hoover and other distinguished dignitaries attending the dedication ceremonies. The superintendence of the Bridge was carried on by the Arlington Memorial Bridge Commission, of which the Director of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital was disbursing officer.

The development of the Mall, authorized by Congress on March 4, 1929, was undertaken in accordance with the L'Enfant plan and the recommendations of the McMillan Commission. [54] This development necessitated the moving of the Botanic Gardens. The developed area included the Mall Park as we know it today running from Union Square to the Washington Monument.

Mount Vernon Memorial Highway

The Mount Vernon Memorial Highway was authorized by Congress on May 23, 1928. Surveys of the proposed highway were made by the Bureau of Public Roads, which supervised the construction. By the end of 1932, the major construction and landscape work on the highway was completed. Ceremonies celebrating the formal opening of the road were held at the Mount Vernon terminus on November 15, 1932. [55] During the 1933 fiscal year, the control of the highway was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the office of Public Buildings and Parks of the National Capital.

Winding through picturesque tidewater Virginia, the highway passes many historical sites. In Alexandria there is Christ Church, where Washington worshipped. There is the old Presbyterian Meeting House and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the Revolutionary War. Below Alexandria, the highway continues parallel with the broad Potomac. A short distance below Mount Vernon, historic Fort Washington may be seen on the Maryland side of the river. The highway comes to an appropriate end at the home of the Father of our Country.

During the administration of the Director of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, numerous colorful ceremonies and celebrations were held in the National Capital, some of which are still yearly highlights of Washington. The park office cooperated with the various civic organizations and jointly sponsored many events, as does the office of National Capital Parks today. The President's Cup Regatta was inaugurated in 1926. The famous Cherry Blossom Festival was begun in 1927. A lavish Hallowe'en Celebration was commenced in 1931. [56] These pageants required considerable work of the parks office. Thousands of chairs had to be set up and impressive stands constructed. Park officials worked diligently to make every event a success. The spectators at these various events and celebrations were always carefully helped and protected by courteous United States Park Police.

Mount Vernon Memorial Highway
Mount Vernon Memorial Highway

A Regional Park System

Considerable thought and action was given to a regional park system. The groundwork for a carefully designed system of regional parks had been given legislative approval by the passage of the Capper-Crampton act. [57] The passage of this act had been vigorously advocated by Colonel Sherrill, the first Director of the office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital. The long range plans of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission included designs for radial highways, cross—connecting highways, airports, sewerage and drainage, and water supply projects. In the field of planning things generally move slowly toward a specific goal. The regional park system of the Nation's Capital has followed that path, having made steady progress in recent years after being firmly formulated during the years, 1925—1933.

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Last Updated: 31-Jul-2003