An Administrative History-Interpretation, Recreation, and Entertainment

Interpretation, Recreation, and Entertainment

One of the justifications for consolidating federal parklands under the National Park Service In 1933 was the Service's reputation for communicating, through educational or interpretive programs and media, the values of its parks to the public. The offices previously responsible for Rock Creek Park had done little of an interpretive nature, and the Service sought to make its mark there In this regard.

Donald Edward McHenry, the first Service naturalist assigned to National Capital Parks, began a series of Friday night campfire programs at Pierce Mill on June 5, 1936. McHenry, Dr. Harold C. Bryant, the Service's assistant director for research and education; Dr. Paul Bartsch, curator of mollusks at the Smithsonian Institution; and Superintendent C. Marshall Finnan spoke that month to a total attendance of about a thousand. [67]

The campfire programs at Pierce Mill--shifted to the Interior Department auditorium in inclement weather--continued to feature an array of Service and Smithsonian officials. Among the speakers in 1939 were Minor R. Tillotson, the Service's regional director from Santa Fe, on the Grand Canyon; Acting Associate Director John S. White on "Years of Adventure in Our National Parks"; Assistant Secretary Alexander Wetmore of the Smithsonian with "Birds on the Wing"; and Carl P. Russell, head of the Service's branch of research and information, on "Behind and In Front of the Scenes in Our National Parks." [68]

In 1940 the outdoor programs were relocated to a wooded recreation grove near 16th and Kennedy streets. There a special campfire program on August 29, 1941, celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service. Former director Horace M. Albright presided over the ceremonial lighting of a large birthday cake. Among the candle lighters were William Henry Jackson, whose photographs had won support for the early western parks; J. Horace McFarland, who had promoted the Park Service bill as president of the American Civic Association; Assistant Secretary of the Interior Oscar L. Chapman; and Service officials Hillory A. Tolson, Conrad L. Wirth, and Ronald F. Lee. [69]

111 In 1938 Donald McHenry developed a nature trail in Rock Creek Park. The quarter-mile loop trail, east of Beach Drive north of the Bingham Road intersection, displayed some 200 labels identifying plants and other natural features. [70] Then and during the war McHenry and his naturalist staff, including George A. Petrides and W. Drew Chick, Jr., led bird-watching expeditions and nature walks along other park trails. They obtained much volunteer support in these programs from the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia.

The 1954 American Forests article by Bernard Frank, "Our Capital's Rock Creek Mess", stimulated the Washington chapter of the Soil Conservation Society of America to generate wider public interest in the Rock Creek watershed. The contemporary threat of the arterial highway through the park was a further spur to action. The first Rock Creek Park Day, on May 15, 1955, was an effort to focus attention on the park and increase awareness of its values.

Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant III chaired the commission for Rock Creek Park Day, and its steering committee included Irston R. Barnes, president of the Potomac Valley Conservation and Recreation Council; Fred M. Packard, executive secretary of the National Parks Association; James Craig, editor of American Forests; and Drew Chick, then chief naturalist of National Capital Parks. A horse show, dog show, and bird and nature walks were among the special events offered, and speakers proclaimed the need for watershed protection. The day was sufficiently successful to be repeated on October 7, 1956, when Mamie Eisenhower served as honorary chairman and the nature center in Klingle House was first opened. With some exceptions (notably in the early 1970s), Rock Creek Park Day continued as an annual event. It is usually observed on the last Saturday in September. [71]

As in the earlier years, proposals were occasionally advanced for recreational development in the park that would intrude upon its natural qualities. In 1936 the National Capital Park and Planning Commission advocated a recreation center at Military Road and 27th Street. The commission's recreation plan justified the development on the grounds that it would be isolated from the rest of Rock Creek Park by Fort Drive, a parkway proposed to link the Civil War defenses of Washington. Superintendent Finnan and landscape architect Malcolm Kirkpatrick strongly opposed such use of any part of the park, citing the 1918 Olmsted Report. [72] The center was not built. Athletic fields and related facilities were constructed on the east side of the park at 16th and Kennedy streets in 1937-1938, but they supplanted the obsolete Brightwood Reservoir and thus did not constitute a new intrusion.

One of the greatest park incursions resulted from the 150th anniversary celebration of Washington as the nation's capital, in 1950. The previous May, Congress authorized the National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission to erect a structure or structures for the celebration, and in November Secretary of the Interior Oscar L. Chapman approved a site in Rock Creek Park near 16th Street and Colorado Avenue for a large amphitheater. National Capital Parks architect William Haussmann and engineer Robert C. Horne designed the facility, for which Secretary Chapman broke ground on December 17. The completed amphitheater with its extensive parking lot and approach roads cost $563,676 and seated more than four thousand. [73]

The theater opened on August 4, 1950, with "Faith of Our Fathers," a dramatic production by Paul Green commissioned for the sesquicentennial. President Harry S Truman and his family witnessed the event. The drama continued for the rest of the summer and resumed for the 1951 season, but it did not enjoy the success of "The Lost Colony," Green's long-running outdoor production on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Because the theater was operated by the sesquicentennial commission, the Park Service had to obtain its approval to arrange military band concerts there on Sunday evenings, when "Faith of Our Fathers" was not playing.

Carter T. Barron, executive vice chairman of the commission, died on November 17, 1950, and the amphitheater was named for him a week later. Carter Barron--the name alone having become synonymous with the facility--devolved to National Capital Parks custody on July I, 1952, when the commission disbanded. Super Attractions, run by Irvin and Israel Feld, booked the theater that August to stage Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but the impresarios were unable to arrange a full season of entertainment planned for 1953.

The Sixteenth Street Highlands Citizens' Association, composed of neighboring landowners, protested the commercial use of Carter Barron. But Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay, finding such use in "the broad interest of the National Capital community," announced in April that Washington Festival, Inc., headed by Constance Bennett, would produce a 12-week program that summer. The productions, including "Show Boat," "Annie Get Your Gun," "The Merry Widow," and "Brigadoon," earned lukewarm reviews and insufficient revenue to cover costs. Washington Festival folded at the end of the season, and Super Attractions returned in 1954. For the rest of the decade and into the next it booked ballet, opera, popular musicals, and the National Symphony Orchestra at Carter Barron. [74]

According to Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Star-News, "This Ed Sullivan mix of attractions worked through the mid-60s when music began to dominate the schedule and the cost of elaborate productions was finally too burdensome." Ballet ceased in 1969. "Our audience was gone...," Mrs. Israel Feld later recalled. "The whole Washington scene was changing. After the riots [of April 1968], people were afraid. And our new patrons didn't want operettas and Broadway plays." By 1972 the new patrons, mostly black teenagers, had caused Carter Barron to become "the summertime-palace of second-string soul," in Trescott's words. [75]

During the 1970s Carter Barron's traditional audience was further dispersed to the new Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington--the last two also under Park Service custody. Reflecting the viewpoint of its departed patronage, a Washington Post drama critic in 1984 called Carter Barron "now more celebrated as a parking lot." [76]

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Last updated: April 10, 2015

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