Posts Tagged ‘Pershing Park’

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.

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Freedom Plaza

Freedom Plaza

Freedom Plaza, originally known as Western Plaza, is an open urban plaza built in 1980 in northwest D.C., located at 1455 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP), at the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.  It is adjacent to Pershing Park, and just a few blocks from The White House.  The plaza was designed and developed by The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, as part of a plan to transform Pennsylvania Avenue into a ceremonial route connecting the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House.

The western end of the plaza contains a raised reflecting pool with a large, animated circular fountain, while the eastern end contains an equestrian statue of Kazimierz Pułaski, a general in the Continental Army.  The center of the plaza contains a giant inlaid black granite and white marble map of the national capital city, as designed by Pierre L’Enfant, with grass panels representing the National Mall and the Ellipse, and bronze markers denoting the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House.

It was renamed Freedom Plaza in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., who worked on his “I Have a Dream” speech in the nearby Willard Hotel.  At the time the name was changed in 1988, a time capsule containing a Bible, a robe, and other relics of King’s was planted at the site.  I look forward to another bike ride there in 2088 when the time capsule will be reopened.

Freedom Plaza is a popular place for political protests and civic events.  In the spring of 1968, it was home to a shanty town known as “Resurrection City,” which was erected by protesters affiliated with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Poor People’s Campaign.”  In the wake of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, the encampment ultimately proved unsuccessful, and the inhabitants of the tent city were dispersed within the next couple of months.

Years later, beginning in October of 2011, it was also one the sites in D.C. which was temporarily home for a group which called itself Occupy Washington D.C., which was connected to the Occupy D.C. movement, encamped at McPherson Square, and to the Occupy Wall Street and broader Occupy movements that sprung up across the United States throughout the fall of that year.  However, by December, the movement’s presence at Freedom Plaza was nearing its end.  The two original organizers of the Freedom Plaza occupation divorced themselves from the occupation, and the “exploding” rat population around the camps at Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square was described by D.C. Department of Health director Mohammad Akhter as “no different than refugee camps.”

Freedom Plaza is one of those places in D.C. that many people have already been to but never really noticed.  Unique among the city’s plazas and parks, it is worth a long enough visit to appreciate its subtlety and details.

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