Just a Walk in the Park in Washington, D.C.

Ah!  Spring is in the air and what better time is there for a walk in the park?

From the huge expanse of Rock Creek Park to the much smaller green spaces like Reservation No. 22, Washington D.C. is home to an abundance of parks and green spaces of all sizes and shapes.  Likewise, the Cartographic Branch of the National Archives is home to a wide variety of maps that illustrate these spaces, past and present, as well as ideas that were proposed but never constructed.

The first park drawing on offer depicts what once was, but is no longer – not in this precise form, anyway.   This map of Mount Vernon Park (1882), found in RG 79: National Capital Parks Numbered Drawings, shows a fairly large green space situated between 7th Street and 9th Street, where Massachusetts Avenue and New York Avenue theoretically cross one another.  Originally, this site contained what appears to be a fairly large fountain in the middle and two small public drinking fountains on the right and the left.  While there is still quite a bit of green space in this location, this particular square has been home to the Carnegie Library since 1903.  However, if you look at the Google map satellite image of this area and zoom in, you can still see part of the original curved walking paths on the right side that were kept as they had originally been.

RG 79: National Capital Parks Numbered Drawings.  Mount Vernon Park.  (NAID 109182909)

Next, we head to the heart of the National Mall to the Smithsonian Castle and its associated gardens.  This illustration shows us what this area looked like prior to most of the familiar buildings we know of on the Mall being constructed.  Drafted in 1892, “Smithsonian Park” (NAID 102280110), can be found in RG 79: National Capital Parks Numbered Drawings.  Of course, you recognize the Castle and the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (called the National Museum in 1892) but what you may not recognize is the Army Medical Museum, since the building was razed in the 1960s and replaced by the Hirshhorn Museum.  But what makes this drawing is especially fun is all of the neat little details that you can find if you zoom in such as the tiny little numbered street lamps that dot the landscape and the Downings Monument that is still located on the grounds to this very day.

RG 79: National Capital Parks Numbered Drawings.  Smithsonian Park. (NAID 102280110)

And speaking of things that were once on the National Mall but are no longer, have a look at the map below, which comes from RG 23: Historical Maps, which offers us a different view of the area surrounding the Capital grounds.  Did you know that in 1888 the Botanical Garden was located right in front of the Capital Building, in the place now occupied by the Capital Reflecting Pool and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial?  According to the Architect of the Capital’s website, “The Capitol Reflecting Pool was included in master plans for the Washington Mall area prepared by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill in the 1960s and 1970s to reduce vehicular traffic on the Mall and facilitate pedestrian and recreational use….The new pool was designed to serve as a counterpart to the one at the western end of the Mall, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Since its completion in 1971, it has been a popular attraction. The broad, gently sloped limestone coping and the steps that lead down from ground level afford seating for visitors as they enjoy the reflections of the U.S. Capitol, the surrounding sights, and the sky as well as the ducks and seagulls that often swim in the pool.”

RG 23: Historical Maps.  Map of Washington, D.C., 1888.  (NAID 31491082)

Our next featured park area is entitled “Mrs. Harrison’s Suggestion for the Extension of the Executive Mansion” (NAID 17370308) comes to us from RG 42: Plans of the White House and Related Buildings.  Not only does this lovely old map dated 1891 give us a glimpse of what the executive mansions looked like at the time, but also provides a view of the small parks and green spaces surrounding it.  For more information about Mrs. Harrison’s proposed plans for the White House, please see the following article regarding First Lady Caroline Harrison on the Indiana Historical Bureau’s website.

RG 42: Plans of the White House and Related Buildings, ca. 1925-1933.  Mrs. Harrison’s Suggestion for the Extension of the Executive Mansion.  (NAID 17370308)

From the White House, we move on to the third national park to be designated by the by the federal government, Rock Creek Park.  This 1,754 acre park was authorized in 1890 and still offers city dwellers a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.  Housed in RG 77: War Department Map Collection, “Rock Creek Park and Vicinity” (NAID 103396601) is a beautiful map that fully illustrates the geographic features of the park including topography, locations of natural springs, and hiking trails.

RG 77: War Department Maps Collection.  Rock Creek Park and Vicinity.  (NAID 103396601)

Perhaps the smallest bits of land governed by the National Park Service are what are referred to as “reservations”.  The Washington, D.C. government’s website discusses “reservations” in the following way:  “U.S. Reservations are lands acquired for use by the Federal Government after the original founding of the city. These were all acquired by the Federal Government through purchase, condemnation, dedication or gift and almost all of the U.S. Reservations in Washington are under the Jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Unlike Appropriations, U.S. Reservations are found throughout the city.”

Below is an example of a reservation drawing located within Washington, D.C.  These drawings come from RG 79: National Capital Parks Numbered Drawings.  Based on the sketches, it is fairly easy to ascertain how small these little plots are.  Reservation No. 23 is only three trees and a fountain wide!

RG 79: National Capital Parks Numbered Drawings.  Reservation No. 23.  (NAID 152615871)

We wrap up our mini-tour of Washington’s green spaces and parks in a place that is more familiar to us today – the Lincoln Memorial end of the National Mall.  This map, taken from RG 328: Numbered Maps and Plans, 1900-1987, is simply titles “Plan for the Northwest Building Area in Washington, DC” (NAID 6104919).  While there have been major changes on this map above Constitution Avenue, the area below that line and over into the area occupied by the Washington Monument and the White House, State Department, and Treasury Building have not changed as much since September of 1944.   While it is true that the only constant is change, this map reminds us that there are some spaces that stand firm though time.

RG 328: Records of the National Capital Planning Commission, 1900-2000.  Plan for the Northwest Building Area in Washington, D.C.  (NAID 6104919)

As of 2020, 24% of the total landscape of the District is used for parks and recreation, and there are over 600 parks total and 98% of the inhabitants of the city lived with a 10-minute walk to a park.