Pershing Park

Pershing Park

On this bike ride I went to Pershing Park. Located at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP), the park is in the heart of downtown D.C., directly in front of the historic Willard Hotel and just a block or so sourtheast of the White House.  The small park serves as a memorial dedicated to and named after General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing.

Pershing is the only person to be promoted in his own lifetime to the highest rank ever held in the United States Army – General of the Armies – a capacity in which he served during World War I.  In fact, since the rank had never before been achieved, there was no prescribed insignia and Pershing had to design his own for his uniform.  Later, a retroactive Congressional edict passed in 1976 promoted George Washington to the same rank but with higher seniority. Pershing holds the disctinction of holding the first United States officer service number (O-1).  He was regarded as a mentor by the generation of American generals who led the United States Army in Europe during World War II, including George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley, and George S. Patton.

Pershing got the nickname “Black Jack” while serving as an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Because of his strictness and rigidity, Pershing was unpopular with the cadets, who took to calling him “Nigger Jack” because of his service with the 10th Cavalry Regiment, a now famous unit formed as a segregated African-American unit and one of the original “Buffalo Soldier” regiments. Over time, the epithet was softened to “Black Jack,” and although the intent remained hostile the nickname stuck with him for the rest of his life.

The site was occupied by a variety of 19th-century structures until circa 1930, when the federal government demolished the entire block. Legislation officially designating the plot as a Pershing Square subsequently was adopted by Congress later that year. How to develop the square proved controversial, however, as different groups offered competing proposals for memorials to Pershing.

In November 1963, the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue proposed a master plan for the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the U.S. Capitol Building. The plan proposed constructing a National Plaza which would have required the demolition of the Pershing Square, the Willard Hotel north of the square, and the two blocks of buildings and street east of these tracts. During this time, all plans for Pershing Park were suspended until such time as the Pennsylvania Avenue master plan could be finalized.

In the end, National Plaza was never constructed. Instead, a much smaller Freedom Plaza was built which did not require the demolition of the area which would become Pershing Park.  The memorial statue was created by architect Wallace Harrison, and the design of the park was finalized in the 1970s by M. Paul Friedberg and Partners.  The multi-level park was constructed simultaneously with Freedom Plaza from 1979 to 1981, and was finally opened to the public on May 14, 1981.

Today, Pershing Park contains a statue of Black Jack Pershing, as well as a flower beds, amphitheatre-style seating oriented around the park’s plaza, a waterfall and fountain, and  a pond which turns into an ice skating rink during the winter.  The park also contains a small structure that houses a café, restrooms and changing area for skating.  Enjoyed year round by those who have discovered it, the park is still unknown by many, especially tourists.

Pershing2
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