An Administrative History-The Pierce-Klingle House and the Nature Center

The Pierce-Klingle House and the Nature Center

The most imposing structure in Rock Creek Park is one not generally visible and familiar to the public. Its obscurity stems from its secluded location off a city street not connected to the main park drives and from the private residential and administrative uses to which it has largely been devoted.

The Pierce-Klingle House, or Klingle Mansion, is situated on Williamsburg Lane above the west bank of Rock Creek less than half a mile below Pierce Mill. Joshua Pierce, a son of the mill builder, built the house in 1823 and enlarged it by an addition on the west side 20 years later. The Pennsylvania Dutch-style structure is of blue and gray granite and encloses 10 rooms within its three stories. A two-story stone and wood frame barn stands to the east, and a utility house and potting shed flank the rear.

An avid horticulturalist, Pierce named the property Linnaean Hill for Karl Van Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, and cultivated a wide variety of plants there. Upon his death in 1869 the property passed to his wife's nephew, Joshua Pierce Klingle; the Klingles occupied it until the early 1890s, when it was acquired for Rock Creek Park. Its future then became problematic. In 1908 Louis P. Shoemaker, a grand-nephew of Joshua Pierce, urged its conversion to "a reception hall for the protection, advantage, and pleasure of the public," with exhibits on the natural and human history of the park. [42] His suggestion was not adopted, and the house was kept in residential occupancy by park staff. Patrick Joyce, maintenance foreman under the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, lived there before 1926, when Joseph J. Quinn took both the job and the house. Quinn was paying $15 a month in rent and employing the property as a maintenance center when he and the park were transferred to the National Park Service in 1933.

The Service's new superintendent of National Capital Parks, C. Marshall Finnan, thought the house better suited to become the superintendent's residence. Quinn was unhappy about the prospect of eviction and sought high-placed assistance in holding on to his quarters. "At the White House today I was handed a memorandum with reference to the house in Rock Creek Park that has been occupied by J. J. Quinn," Secretary Ickes wrote Park Service Director Arno B. Cammerer on March 15, 1934. "This memorandum sets out that Mr. Quinn has been ordered to move so that the house could be turned over to Mr. Finnan. I would like to discuss this matter with you." [43]

At Cammerer's request, Finnan prepared a statement on the historical associations and architectural interest of the house and urged that it be restored in a manner befitting its significance. "If the house continues to serve as a residence," he wrote, "it should most certainly be occupied by some one fully appreciative of the historical and architectural values, and who would be willing to furnish it, as nearly as practicable to do so, in the period and style from 1830 to 1840." Finnan had himself in mind, and Cammerer secured the secretary's approval by assuring him that the higher rent forthcoming from the superintendent would cover the restoration costs. [44]

Ickes remained personally interested in the house, writing again in May to ask how it could ultimately be used if restored. Finnan responded that it could become a historic house museum, exhibiting varieties of cut flowers in keeping with Joshua Pierce's horticultural interests; alternately, it could be rented to the highest bidder "until the entire investment of restoration is paid for and then it could be taken over by the Park Service for such uses as it feels will best suit the interests of the public and the administration of the park." He estimated that residential rent would bring in between $125 and $150 per month, "so that the project would be self-liquidating." [45]

The Service proceeded to renovate the house for Finnan's use, and he took up residence there in October 1936. Notwithstanding the original estimate, he approved monthly rent for himself of $85, justifying the below-market figure with language routinely used for employee quarters in the Service's remote parks: "This property is located in an isolated community where transportation facilities, schools, stores and conveniences are not readily accessible." [46] Finnan remained there until August 1, 1939, when he left for the superintendency of Zion National Park in southwestern Utah--a place more nearly fitting his rent justification.

Secretary Ickes ordered that the house not be assigned to Finnan's successor or anyone else connected with National Capital Parks. At his direction, it was advertised for lease at a minimum bid of $200 per month. When no such bids were received, a lease at $2,200 per year ($183 per month) was negotiated with Michael W. Straus, chief of the Interior Department's Division of Information, in February 1940. [47]

This arrangement came under attack in January 1947 when George D. Riley, staff director of the Senate Civil Service committee, charged that Straus, then commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, was improperly benefiting from it. He grilled Park Service Director Newton B. Drury, Associate Director Arthur E. Demaray, and National Capital Parks Superintendent Irving C. Root about the lease at a committee hearing, but no wrongdoing was found. Straus continued in occupancy until early 1952, when he moved to a new house outside the park. [48]

Jane Dahlman Ickes, widow of the just-deceased former Interior Secretary, asked Secretary of the Interior Oscar L. Chapman if she could rent the house. The Park Service decided that it needed the property for administrative purposes and so advised Chapman, who politely declined Mrs. Ickes' request. The Service envisioned using the house for ranger-naturalist offices, a unit of the engineering survey staff, and a checking-in station for the mounted police in Rock Creek park. [49] In practice, only the police used the house and barn during the remainder of 1952. Service auditors occupied part of the house in early 1953, but it was vacant at the end of the summer.

In February 1954 Under Secretary Ralph A. Tudor told Associate Superintendent Harry T. Thompson of National Capital Parks that Chief Justice Earl Warren was interested in renting the house. "I gave Mr. Tudor the historical background on the mansion house relating how it had been a constant public relations problem; that it was used this past summer as interim office space for field officers; that the heating plant would need replacement if it were to be occupied; that it presented a servant and maintenance problem and so on," Thompson recorded of their conversation. [50] Tudor was sympathetic and discouraged Warren's application.

The following year Matilda Young, director of the Children's Museum of Washington, sought to obtain the building for her museum. W. Drew Chick, Jr., chief park naturalist for National Capital Parks, and C. Kenny Dale, his assistant, had begun planning for a nature center in the house, and Director Wirth turned down the museum's request. [51] The Rock Creek Park Nature Center opened in October 1956.

Catering largely to school children, the nature center soon encountered opposition from neighboring residents. John D. Rhodes, a Senate reporter, took the lead, organizing a petition and visiting Associate Superintendent Thompson in April 1957 to complain of traffic and trespassing by the visitors. The Service had planned to build a hard-surfaced parking lot for the center that summer, but the opposition led Thompson to promise that the activity would be relocated after the current school year. [52]

Word of the decision aroused contrary sentiment. John G. Gruber, vice-principal of Suitland Junior High School, charged that neighborhood objections to the center were based on the importation of black children there. The National Parks Association and the Wilderness Society voiced support for its retention. Interviewed by a newspaper reporter, Thompson claimed that the relocation plans stemmed from the physical inadequacy of the house and the difficult access to it; but he admitted that Rhodes had "crystallized" the decision. The counter-opposition caused the Service to pledge in August that it would not discontinue the nature center in Klingle House until a new facility was ready. [53]

Planning for the new nature center had begun that June with the decision to place it east of upper Glover Road, on the site of a caretaker's residence. The five-room frame residence had been built with a Public Works Administration allotment in 1936 and was occupied by Joseph J. Quinn upon his eviction from Klingle House. With Quinn's impending retirement the house was no longer deemed necessary, and William M. Haussmann, chief architect for National Capital Parks, designed the nature center building to incorporate usable portions of it. [54]

The construction contract was awarded to Cee Bee Contractors of Coral Hills, Maryland, in June 1959. The building cost $258,500, its exhibits $41,500, the projector for its planetarium $6,000, and the access road and parking area $27,500--a total of $333,500. Delays in material deliveries postponed the scheduled December completion. With Director Wirth presiding, the new nature center was dedicated on June 4, 1960. [55]

During 1959, the final year of the Klingle House nature center, the Service considered other tenants for the building upon its forthcoming vacancy, among them the American Institute of Park Executives, the National Conference on State Parks, the American Planning and Civic Association, and the Junior League of Washington. When the Junior League appeared most satisfactory, the Service negotiated an agreement with that organization. It moved in on April 6, 1960. [56]

In 1963 the Children's Museum of Washington again tried to obtain the house. When Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall turned down the request, citing the problems experienced there with the nature center, the well-connected museum sponsors sought to work their will through the White House and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the president's brother. Failing in this, they bided their time until March 1965, two months before the Junior League's lease would expire. When Matilda Young then pressed Secretary Udall for the property, the Service initially decided to locate the offices of National Capital Parks-North there so that it would not have to choose between the two private groups. It then dropped this plan, renewed the Junior League's lease, and offered its Conduit Road School building on MacArthur Boulevard to the museum, which reluctantly accepted the arrangement. [57]

In 1972 the Service regained occupancy of Klingle House, the Junior League having moved to new quarters on M Street in Georgetown. In the succeeding decade it used the house for the "Green Scene," a horticultural outreach program; other science and natural resource program activities; and various administrative purposes. The house was expensive to maintain and not ideally suited for these functions, however, causing the Service to look once again for an appropriate tenant. It found one in the American Institute for Conservation, which on October 15, 1982, was given a five-year special use permit to use Klingle House as its headquarters. The rent of $800 per month would be devoted to restoration of the structure. [58] For the immediate future, at least, the house appeared in good hands.

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Last updated: April 10, 2015

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