Posts Tagged ‘Meridian Hill Park’


Union Row

As with most large cities, there are a lot of alleys throughout D.C.  But some alleys are better than others, and they can vary as drastically as the neighborhoods of the city where they are located.  I often ride through alleys when I’m riding my bike.  But the alleys are usually there to simply to provide a narrow passageway between or behind buildings, or for off-street parking and storage space for trash cans.  But on this bike ride I happened upon an alley which had recently been renovated into some trendy living spaces.  And being able to imagine myself living there quickly made it one of my favorite alleys in the city.  Located at the corner of 14th Street and V Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s U Street corridor in the Shaw/Uptown neighborhood, the residences are known as The Warehouses at Union Row.

Union Row is a contemporary housing and business complex developed in 2007 by the P.N. Hoffman real estate development firm.  The Warehouses at Union Row were previously used for car storage, but were transformed into modern, industrial-looking three-level town homes that feature open floor plans with high ceilings and oversize windows to maximize natural light, and include private terraces on two sides of the home.  European kitchens with stainless appliances and granite countertops flow into spacious living and dining areas.  Additional amenities include a concierge, elevators, a courtyard, community meeting and party rooms, and off-street parking for cars (or bicycles).

The Warehouses at Union Row are within walking distance of the U Street Metro Station, and is conveniently located near a number of neighborhood cultural attractions.  These include the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, the Howard and Lincoln Theaters, Meridian Hill Park, as well as some of the city’s best jazz clubs and dance halls, the 14th & U Streets Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings, and a wide variety of shops and restaurants, including Busboys and Poets across the street, and the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl.

As I wrote earlier, I could easily imagine myself living in one of town homes that make up the Warehouses at Union Row.  However, for two reasons I am fairly certain that changing my address to Union Row will not be happening anytime soon.  First, there are no units available at the present time.  And the other reason is because units can sell in the half a million to million dollar range.  So absent winning the Powerball lottery, I think there are a lot of other alleys I could wind up living in before I become a resident of Union Row.



The American Meridian Memorial

As I was riding around the campus of George Washington University on this lunchtime bike ride, I happened upon a marker that I hadn’t seen before. As I would come to find out, it is The American Meridian Memorial.  Located on a small bluff near the corner of 24th and H Streets (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Foggy Bottom Neighborhood, it was once considered by some to be the center of the world, establishing a geographical line that separated the Eastern and Western hemispheres. 

Prior to 1850, different countries measured longitude from different meridians. Because there was no agreement for a prime meridian, the way there is with latitude and the Equator, prime meridians and associated maps were identified in Greenwich, Paris, Rome, and various other European centers. American navigators tended to use either the French meridian at Paris or the British meridian at Greenwich.

Beginning in 1850, the United States established and began to measure distance from the American Meridian. The Federal government officially used this line, which ran along 24th Street, to measure distances on land, survey the West, coordinate the nation’s clocks, and record the start of new days.

However, few navigators at that time adopted the American Meridian, as they owned charts that gave distances relative to Paris or London, rather than 24th Street in D.C.  In fact, the United States continued to utilize the Greenwich Meridian for longitude at sea. But land surveyors welcomed the ability to measure from the new American Meridian rather that a line that lay across a broad ocean.  So as teams of American surveyors and mapmakers ventured steadily westward, those square boundaries of the Western states were all measured in appealing round numbers from the American Meridian.

Oregon would be the first to use the American Meridian in 1859 when it became a state. The southeastern border of the new state would be exactly 42 degrees West of the American Meridian. Colorado Territory in 1861 would be next to use the Meridian, establishing it’s eastern (27°W, Am) and western (34°W, Am) borders with the newly established meridian. The eastern border of Wyoming is exactly 27 degrees west of 24th Street, Arizona is 32 degrees west, and the Utah-Nevada border is 36 degrees west

The United States, via an act of Congress, officially abandoned the American Meridian in 1912, when it accepted the meridian at Greenwich as the international standard. Thus, the American Meridian was relegated to history. Today, the meridian marker is one of three reminders in D.C. of the evolution of cartography in this country. Meridian Hill Park was named for a stone obelisk that was erected there along the original prime meridian in 1804.  The stone marker there is long gone, but the park named after it remains.  And the third remnant of the pre-Greenwich Meridian age is The Zero Milestone, which is located on The Ellipse directly south of The White House.  With the advancement of technology, one day the Greenwich Meridian may be a thing of the past as well.

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Boundary Castle

Boundary Castle

While on a bike ride along 16th Street near Florida Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C., I found an old, sturdy brownstone retaining wall and what appears to be an ornate entry gate leading to nowhere.   I later found out that they were once part of a property known as Boundary Castle. Also sometimes referred to as Henderson Castle or Prospect Castle, Boundary Castle was a mansion located on the border of D.C.’s Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, and was the family home of John Brooks Henderson and Mary Foote Henderson.

John was a former U.S. Senator from Missouri. He was initially appointed to the Senate in 1862 to replace Trusten Polk, who had been expelled from Senate for his support of the South in the Civil War. He was later elected and served one full term. He was best known for authoring the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. He was also remembered for breaking party ranks, and along with six other Republican senators voting for acquittal in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. After leaving the Senate, he and his wife Mary moved back to St. Louis.

While back in Missouri, Mary founded the St. Louis School of Design and authored “Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving” and “Diet for the Sick, A Treatise on the Values of Foods.” Meanwhile, John was busy buying up enormous quantities of supposedly worthless bonds that Missouri counties had issued after the Civil War. Purchased at ten cents on the dollar, the bonds became valuable when the courts ordered counties to pay their full face value. In 1889, after accumulating a massive fortune, the Hendersons moved back to D.C.

Upon arriving back in D.C., the Hendersons needed a fitting place to live, so they had a massive, Romanesque Revival-style mansion built. The house was designed by Massachusetts architect Eugene C. Gardner, and was supposedly modeled after a castle Mary had seen in Europe. The sprawling was made from Seneca sandstone, the same material used in the Smithsonian, and boasted 30 rooms. They named it Boundary Castle.

The Hendersons also bought up approximately 300 lots outside the northern boundary of the city in the area, then known as Meridian Hill, in the hope they could develop the area into the center of Washington society during the height of the Gilded Age. Their interest in the immediate neighborhood also coincided with the City Beautiful Movement of the early 20th century. This reform philosophy of North American architecture and urban planning flourished during the 1890s and 1900s with the intent of introducing beautification and monumental grandeur in cities. However, it promoted beauty not only for its own sake, but also to instill moral and civic virtue among urban populations.

With a genuine interest in civic improvement, Mary frequently lobbied Congress for various projects to improve and beautify the Meridian Hill area. In 1900, she supported a plan by architect Franklin W. Smith to construct a colossal presidential mansion on Meridian Hill to replace The White House. However, this plan never came to fruition. She was, however, successful in lobbying Congress to support the acquisition of the land and its eventual development as Meridian Hill Park. She also had lavish palaces and mansions built on the properties they owned to be rented or sold to government officials and diplomats.

Real estate development was not Mary’s only interest during this time, however. She also became an impassioned advocate for healthy living, and wrote another book entitled ” The Aristocracy of Health: A Study of Physical Culture, Our Favorite Poisons, and a National and International League for the Advancement of Physical Culture.” She was known to throw lavish dinner parties, which were always strictly vegetarian, and alcohol-free. It was also during this time that Mary famously decided to dispose of the plentiful and expensive wine collection John had accumulated over the years. She had her butler and others bring the wine bottles up from the castle’s cellars and smash them on a large rock in the front lawn. Newspaper accounts of the incident reported that there was so much wine that it ran down into the gutters of 16th Street.

John passed away in 1913 at the age of 86. Mary remained in Boundary Castle for the next 18 years, before passing away in 1931 at the age of 88. After her death, Bondary Castle was rented by a man named Bert L. Williams, who reopened it as the Castle H Tennis and Swimming Club. In what would have been abhorrent to Mary, he also turned the castle’s ballroom into a stand-up bar. As early as 1935, there had been talk of tearing down the old castle, but it hung on until January 1949, when it was finally razed. Wealthy neighbors Eugene and Agnes Meyer had purchased the mansion in order to get rid of the rowdy club. Today, the site is home to 216 townhouses known collectively as Beekman Place.

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On this bike ride I chose to go to see a sculpture entitled “Serenity,” which sits in Meridian Hill Park, located in northwest D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood on land bordered by 15th, 16th, W, and Euclid Streets (MAP).  The large outdoor statue depicts a seated woman with a flowing robe over her lap, and her left foot resting on what appears to be a broken sword.  Serenity was installed in the park’s northwest corner and dedicated on March 12, 1924.  It is the work of a Spanish Catalan sculptor named José Clara, and is identical to the sculpture, “Serenidad,” which is known by the same name, only in Spanish for some reason, despite the fact that it is in Luxembourg, Germany.

Serenity was originally owned by Charles Deering, an American businessman, art collector and philanthropist, whose family fortune was made through the agricultural equipment company that eventually became International Harvester.   He bought the statue in 1900 at the Paris Exposition.  As a tribute to the memory of a friend and classmate from the U.S. Naval Academy named William Henry Scheutze, Deering donated the statue to the National Park Service to be displayed publicly as a gift to the American people.

Deering’s friend, Lieutenant Commander William Henry Scheutze, was a career naval officer.  He graduated first in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy.  He was part of an expedition to retrieve the bodies of American explorers who died in the Arctic, and later served in Siberia as a navigator, and on the U.S.S. Iowa during the Spanish American War.  At the time of his sudden death, Scheutze had a desk job in D.C. as the superintendent of the compass division of the U.S. Navy.  Other than the fact that Deering already owned the piece, I have no idea what the sculpture of a serene woman has to do with a deceased naval officer.

Unfortunately, the sculpture is in a state of disrepair.  Her nose went missing in 1960, and by 2009 she was also missing her left hand and a big toe.  She has been vandalized over the years with paint as well, although that has been cleaned up.    But it is nonetheless a nice sculpture, and worth seeking out, especially if you’re already visiting Meridian Hill Park.


Dante Alighieri Statue at Meridian Hill Park

Dante Alighieri is a public artwork by an Italian sculptor named Ettore Ximenes, and is a tribute to the major Italian poet of the Middle Ages of the same name, mononymously referred to as Dante.   It rests on a granite base, with the statue depicting a standing Dante wearing a robe and a laurel wreath on his head.  In his hands he is holding a copy of “The Divine Comedy,” his epic poetic trilogy depicting an imaginative and allegorical vision of the afterlife describes Dante’s journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso).  Originally called Commedia and later called Divina by Giovanni Boccaccio, who wrote a biography of Dante.  The Divine Comedy is widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature, as well as one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature.

Dante was a Medieval Italian poet, writer, political thinker and moral philosopher.  He known in In Italy as il Sommo Poeta, or “the Supreme Poet.”  He is also called the “Father of the Italian language.”  He was born in Florence in the year 1265.  Unfortunately, relatively little is known about his life.  Much of what is known of the writer comes from his essays and writings.  Dante did not write of his family or marriage, but it is known that he married Gemma di Manetto Donati, and they had several children, of whom two sons, Jacopo and Pietro, and a daughter, Antonia, are known.

Dante Alighieri is a casting of an identical statue located at Dante Park in New York City, and was donated to the city of D.C. as a “gift of the Italians of the United States” by Carlo Barsotti, the founder of Dante Park and editor of Il Progresso Italiano-Americano, an Italian-language daily newspaper published in the United States at that time.

On this bike ride, I rode to see the statue, which is located at the southeast corner of Meridian Hill Park, which is located in northwest D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, on land bordered by 15th, 16th, W, and Euclid Streets (MAP).  It was dedicated at that location in December of 1921, in a ceremony attended by numerous dignitaries, including President Warren G. Harding and his wife, Florence, who may or may not have been named after the city where Dante was born.

The Joan of Arc Statue

The Joan of Arc Statue

On this day in 1431, Jehanne d’Arc, or Joan of Arc, was burned at the stake for insubordination and heterodoxy. After succumbing to the flames, the English raked back the coals to expose her charred body so that no one could claim she had escaped alive.  They then burned the body twice more to reduce it to ashes and prevent any collection of relics.  Afterwards, they cast her remains into the Seine River.

A peasant girl born in what is now eastern France, who claimed divine guidance, Joan of Arc led the French army to several important victories during the Hundred Years’ War, which paved the way for the coronation of Charles VII.  She was captured by the Burgundians, transferred to the English in exchange for money, put on trial by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais Pierre Cauchon,” and burned at the stake as a heretic when she was only 19 years old.

Twenty-five years after the execution, an Inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Callixtus III examined the trial records.  The court’s verdict exonerated her, and she was declared her a martyr.  Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 and was recognized as a Christian saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.  Saint Joan of Arc is a national heroine of France.  Her feast day is also today, May 30.

To recognize the events of this day in history, I rode to historic Meridian Hill Park in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of northwest D.C. (MAP), to see the statue entitled “Joan of Arc” by Paul Dubois.  The bronze equestrian statue is located on the upper level of the park above the fountains, overlooking the city with a view all the way downtown to The Washington Monument.   The statue is the only equestrian statue of a woman in D.C., and depicts her riding with a sword in her right hand.  The sword she originally held was stolen in 1978, and not replaced until just recently.

The statue was a gift from Le Lyceum Société des Femmes de France (the “Ladies of France in Exile in New York”) to the women of the United States in 1922, two years after she was cannonized as a saint.   DuBois’ original work on which this statue is based is located in Reims, France, in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.

As I was there in the park I couldn’t help but wonder what Joan of Arc would have thought of her status as a popular figure in cultural history, and the existence of this statue memorializing her located in a park in the capital of a country that wouldn’t be founded for more than three centuries after her death.

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Meridian Hill Park

Meridian Hill Park

On this bike ride I went to one of my favorite parks in D.C.  In a city replete with over a hundred large National Parks and smaller municipal parks from which to choose, Meridian Hill Park stands out.  I originally discovered it by happenstance when I was riding with no destination in mind.  It has since become a favorite destination.

Meridian Hill Park is located in northwest D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, on land bordered by 15th, 16th, W, and Euclid Streets (MAP).  Prior to becoming a park, the land had a storied history.  It was used as a geographic marker by President Thomas Jefferson as part of establishing a longitudinal meridian for the city and the nation which was used at that time.  Later the land was part of the grounds of a mansion built by a naval hero of the War of 1812.  It was also used for a Union Army encampment during the Civil War.  It was even a proposed site at the beginning of the 20th century for the construction of a Presidential mansion to replace The White House.  When that did not get approved, a plan to have the site be used for the planned Lincoln Memorial was submitted.

Finally in 1910, the Federal government purchased the land and, by an Act of Congress, established Meridian Hill Park.  Construction began in 1912 based on a design modelled after the grand urban parks found in many major European cities at that time.  The formal, 12-acre landscaped grounds include unique artwork such as a marble sculpture entitled Serenity, a Presidential Memorial to James Buchanan, a memorial statue of Joan of Arc, a statue entitled Dante Alighieri, and an enormous cascading fountain.  The park is surrounded by concrete aggregate architecture which was based on an Italian aristocrat’s private residence.  In 1994 the park was designated a National Historic Landmark.  It is maintained by the National Park Service as part of Rock Creek Park, but is not contiguous with the main part of that park.

The central feature of the park is the thirteen basin cascading waterfall fountain in the lower-level formal garden.  The fountain includes an Italian Renaissance-style terraced fountain in the lower half, and gardens in a French Baroque style in the upper half.   It is designed with a recirculating water system which, through an elaborate series of pumps, supplies water to two large circular fountains on the upper level, and the cascade found on the lower.  It is the largest cascading fountain in North America.

After falling into disrepair and decay in the 1970’s, the park enjoyed a resurgence thanks to the a group of community organizations which formed the “Friends of Meridian Hill” partnership.  After extensive renovations and restoration, the park now hosts a variety of community arts and educational programs, twilight concerts, and on Sunday afternoons during warm weather, people gather in the upper park to dance and participate in a popular Drum Circle, which regularly attracts both enthusiastic dancers and professional drummers.

Whether or not you become a member of the formal partnership by the same name, one visit to this park and you’ll more than likely want to consider yourself a “friend” of Meridian Hill too.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]


The James Buchanan Presidential Memorial

The James Buchanan Presidential Memorial

Located just a short bike ride away from the downtown cluster of monuments and memorials, the Presidential memorial to James Buchanan is located in the Southeast corner of Meridian Hill Park in Northwest D.C. (MAP).

Commissioned in 1916, but not approved by the U.S. Congress until 1918, the bronze and granite memorial to the 15th President of the United States was completed and unveiled June 26, 1930.  The memorial features a statue of Buchanan bookended by male and female classical figures representing law and diplomacy, and is engraved with the following text, “The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law.”

Buchanan is the last President born in the 18th century, and held the office immediately prior to the American Civil War, from 1857 until 1861.  Buchanan’s unsuccessful efforts to maintain peace between the North and the South not only alienated both sides but led to the Southern states declaring their secession from the Union.  Buchanan’s opinion was that secession was illegal, but that going to war to stop it was also illegal.

By the time he left office, popular opinion was against him, and the Democratic Party had split. Buchanan had once aspired to a Presidency that would rank in history with that of George Washington.  However, his inability to impose peace on sharply divided partisans on the brink of the Civil War has led to his consistent ranking by historians as one of the worst presidents in American history, and often assess his failure to deal with secession the worst presidential mistake ever made.  The manner and process by which his memorial came to be reflects this widely-held opinion about him and his Presidency.

Buchanan is the only President to have never married.  As a result, he relied on his niece, Harriet Lane, to serve as White House hostess during his presidency.  After Buchanan left office, the now-married and fairly wealthy Harriet Lane Johnston became a philanthropist, supporting children’s charities and donating a great deal of art to government museums.

Johnston, being pretty much the only defender of the Buchanan Administration, in her will left money to build a memorial to Uncle.  Interestingly, even the memorial would require no public funding, because of their opinion of Buchanan, lawmakers did not initially accept the bequest.  In debating legislation about the bequest and memorial, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts stated, “This joint resolution proposes at this moment, in the midst of this war, to erect a statue to the only President upon whom rests the shadow of disloyalty in the great office to which he was elected.”

Someone eventually noticed that the bequest had an expiration date, and so Congress, always willing to spend money the is not there own, finally approved accepting the bequest and appropriated the funds for the memorial in 1918.