Park Planners and Plans
At the turn of the century the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, chaired by Sen. James McMillan of Michigan, sponsored a study of Washington's parks. The McMillan Commission, as it was known, consisted of four prominent civic artists: architects Daniel H. Burnham and Charles F. McKim, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Their report, The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia, was edited by Charles Moore and published in 1902. With the strong advocacy of the Commission of Fine Arts, established in 1910 with Burnham, Olmsted, and Moore as initial members, the report had great influence on the later development and expansion of parklands in and around the city.
Rock Creek Park, the commission found, was among the areas needing improvement: "This territory, beautified by nature, is undeveloped, save for a few roads, the location of which was obvious; and before the public can fully realize the advantages of the purchase Rock Creek Park must be improved according to a systematic plan prepared by landscape architects." 
The report cautioned against enlarging the park's major artery, Beach Drive:
The commission recommended six additional land purchases totaling 303 acres to prevent overlooking crests from being developed and to take the park up to boundary streets separating it from adjacent property. It also advocated western extensions along the Soapstone Branch and Broad Branch tributaries, in the latter case to Fort Reno. 
Whereas the McMillan Commission only touched upon Rock Creek Park, being more concerned with the monumental city core, the Olmsted Brothers report ordered by the Board of Control in 1917 focused on its development and expansion. The Olmsted Report was completed in December 1918.  Its tone was set by its opening sentence: "The dominant consideration, never to be subordinated to any other purpose in dealing with Rock Creek Park, is the permanent preservation of its wonderful natural beauty, and the making of that beauty accessible to the people without spoiling the scenery in the process."
The report spoke of the park's two kinds of scenery--the larger landscape pictures and the intimate details:
The approach taken by Olmsted Brothers was to divide the park into defined landscape units, based on the vegetation that should prevail in each, and recommend measures for their enhancement and maintenance. Artificial development should in all cases be unobtrusive. Structures "should be so designed and located as to fall naturally into place as part and parcel of the scenery, and should never stand out as objects complete in themselves with the surrounding landscape becoming merely a background." Roads and trails "should always and unmistakably fit into the landscape as harmonious and subordinate parts of the scenery through which they pass." The report urged higher appropriations for park maintenance and development of a trained work force directed by "a man with a thorough knowledge of plants and forestry and above all with a keen artistic appreciation of the aims and possibilities of the work".
Accompanying the report were graphic renditions of recommended land additions, the landscape units, a system of park drives, and two proposed thoroughfares across the park (from Yuma Street on the west to Taylor Street on the east and from Utah Avenue on the west to Madison Street on the east). Land acquisition should receive priority, the report stated, especially on the west side from Pierce Mill north along Broad Branch nearly to Military Road, on each side of the narrow parkland strip then following the eastern tributary of Piney Branch, and at the northeast corner of the park.
The Olmsted Report was approved by the Fine Arts Commission, and in February 1919 Colonel Ridley announced its adoption by his office. "Nothing will be done hereafter in this park which is contrary to the letter or spirit of this report without specific approval in writing of the Officer in Charge of Public Buildings and Grounds," he ordered. At the same time he appointed a Rock Creek Park Board within the office "to assist the Officer in Charge in carrying out this development in a logical, continuous, and artistic manner." He detailed to the board two landscape architects on his staff: James D. Langdon (who had aided the McMillan Commission) and Irving W. Payne. They were to study the Olmsted Report, recommend on its implementation, and inspect and report on the work done. In the process they were to "consult freely with the landscape member of the Commission of Fine Arts taking every opportunity to present to him on the ground important details of work proposed." .
The landscape member of the Fine Arts Commission was James L. Greenleaf of New York, who succeeded Frederlick Law Olmsted, Jr., in 1918. At the commission's request, Greenleaf wrote Ridley at length with his comments and elaboration on the Olmsted Report.  He began by remarking on the perennial tension between preservation and use:
"The rectifying of boundaries is an important matter and the Report rightly urges immediate attention to this before real estate values make the problem more difficult," Greenleaf continued. "The scenery is not panoramic, but instead the views are now chiefly those of woodland valley, bordered by hills wooded to the skyline. How unfortunate if this foliage skyline be replaced by obtrusive rows of buildings, gaping down into the Park...."
Of artificial structures in the park Greenleaf wrote:
Greenleaf reluctantly accepted picnic grounds in Rock Creek Park but urged a strong stand against auto camping:
Greenleaf's discourse to Ridley on the Olmsted Report reflected his concern that the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds was unequal to the task of implementing it. "Col. Ridley has difficulties of organization and daily administration," he confided to commission chairman Charles Moore. "My fear is that the valuable ideas the Olmsted Report gives shall never bear fruit under the deadening influence of daily routine." 
Moore was also inclined to criticism of the park's management under Ridley's office. In a letter to Olmsted in December 1921 he wrote, "It seems to me the park has been rather neglected in various ways, and the Commission wants to give the park particular attention during the next year." 
The following March Greenleaf expressed the commissions sense in a letter to Ridley's successor, Colonel Sherrill. "There can be no doubt that serious damage is occurring and this damage can be checked solely by intelligent and thorough handling," he wrote, calling for prompt suppression of weed growth. "There is a hill-side at a western entrance to Rock Creek Park which, with its cedars rising against the sky was reminiscent of an Italian hill-side. When I saw it three years ago, these cedars were shrieking under the throttling grasp of wild honey-suckle and tree weeds. Now as one passes he hears only a smothered moan. I call that hill-side 'The Tragedy of the Cedars.'" He urged Sherrill to study the Olmsted Report on this and other matters: "Its words as to a permanent trained force, and control by a man of imagination and artistic feeling and training withal, are as apples of gold in a silver dish." 
Sherrill did not take kindly to Greenleaf's implications of mismanagement and neglect. "The line of procedure indicated in your letter has been consistently followed for many years, and the report of Mr. Olmsted, with which I am entirely familiar, has been of the greatest service in administering the park...," he retorted. "There is no lack of a trained force, or of control of a man of imagination and artistic feeling in handling the matters connected with Rock Creek Park. The only difficulty is, and has been, that appropriations adequate to accomplish all the necessary work cannot be secured for the purpose." Nevertheless, he wrote, an expert forester recommended by the Forest Service had been employed by his office in the park for the past year and had accomplished much recommended by Olmsted. Sixty percent of the dead chestnuts had been removed and their areas replayed with more than 25,000 seedling trees. 50 acres north of Milk House Ford had been cleared of weed growth, and three acres around Fort DeRussy had been cleared of shrub pine to free the cedars. "In view of the above," Sherrill concluded, "I am sure you will agree that the administration of Rock Creek Park is not devoid of intelligence as intimated in your letter." 
Greenleaf hastened to assure Sherrill that he had meant no personal criticism and appreciated the work done. But criticism of Rock Creek Park's management continued. It would be repeated by professional representatives of the bureau succeeding the park's military government, the National Park Service, a dozen years later. 
Last updated: April 10, 2015