Less than a mile from the natural wilderness of Rock Creek valley, Rock Creek Park oversees a formal garden on Meridian Hill.
With its expansive views overlooking downtown Washington and extending across the Potomac, Meridian Hill attracted ambitious plans over the years. It might have become the site of a new White House, the Vice President’s home, the Lincoln Memorial, a Columbian Arch to rival the Arc de Triomphe, the Netherlands Carillon, the National Gallery of Art or the Naval Observatory.
Remarkably, what did get built is as grand as any of the failed proposals — while still preserving the panorama.
Meridian Hill Park was designed as a formal Italian Renaissance garden. Visitors wander along patterned walkways, descend dramatic stairways and duck into niches filled with benches and sculptures — as water splashes from fountains and tumbles downhill through 13 basins. People-watching is just as colorful, especially during the Sunday afternoon Drum Circles held since the 1950s.
History on the Heights
Originally called Peter’s Hill, the site was renamed Meridian Hill by Commodore David Porter after he purchased the property in 1816. The War of 1812 naval hero placed a stone marker on his land along a line directly north from the White House. President Thomas Jefferson had ordered the line drawn in 1804 to serve as the prime meridian of the District of Columbia or perhaps of the nation itself.
John Quincy Adams leased the estate after losing re-election in 1828. Leading up to the Civil War, the area was best known as a picnic spot. Meridian Hill housed military camps and army hospitals during the war. In 1867 the estate was among the first outside “Washington City” to be subdivided. African Americans who had found their way to the camps as free blacks and escaped slaves stayed on, purchasing land and building modest homes. The handsome Wayland Seminary at 15th and Euclid Streets educated black students, including Booker T. Washington.
Still, much of Meridian Hill remained forest and fields. Joaquin Miller, the colorful “Poet of the Sierras,” lived in the neighborhood ina log cabin he constructed in 1883.
Becoming a High-Class Address
Former Senator John Henderson and his wife Mary Foote Henderson started buying land on Meridian Hill in 1888. They built for themselves a mansion of red sandstone known as Henderson Castle and erected elegant residential and embassy buildings nearby. Other developers followed suit, designing 15 Beaux Arts mansions for Meridian Hill by 1928.
Mrs. Henderson was a tireless promoter of many grand but unfulfilled proposals for the neighborhood. One plan that eventually did come to fruition — on land the couple sold to Congress in 1910 — was Meridian Hill Park.
Eventually took a long time. Only in 1936 could a Washington Post headline declare the park “Finally Completed after 26 Years of Hard Work, Petty Strife.” The strife included a bitter congressional debate over whether James Buchanan deserved a monument, a proposal during World War I to sell the park or use it for war buildings and a constant struggle for appropriations.
A Park of Plenty
Washingtonians marveled at the result: a 12-acre garden fit for European royalty but open to all, featuring the nation’s largest cascading fountain and the first use of concrete aggregate surfaces whose embedded pebbles created mosaic designs.
Statuary donated to beautify the park included the Buchanan statue, bequeathed by his niece and flanked by granite figures representing law and diplomacy; Joan of Arc, Washington’s only equestrian statue of a woman, a gift from French women in New York to the women of America; a statue of Dante presented on the 600th anniversary of his death on behalf of Italian-Americans; “Serenity,” sculpted from a white marble block in memory of a Navy officer; and a bronze armillary sphere 68 inches in diameter (now lost), bestowed to honor a local artist by her sister.
The open mall in the upper park was well-suited for concerts and gatherings. In the 1940s, the space hosted the Von Trapp Family, the Martha Graham Dancers and an annual program of chamber music. Plays were staged in a 917-seat theater over eight weeks in 1949 — in front of integrated audiences. The concert schedule ebbed during the 1950s and 60s, but included performances by the National Symphony and a 1968 gala that attracted up to 20,000 people.
Meridian Hill Park also became a place for activism, with some of the earliest rallies coming after the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968 and on the first anniversary of his assassination. Newspaper coverage of the 1969 rally recognized that the site was beginning to be called “Malcolm X Park,” a name attributed to Angela Davis.
After crime and vandalism plagued the park during the 1970s and 80s, a group called Friends of Meridian Hill formed patrols, organized programs to attract visitors and helped the National Park Service make improvements. The group was recognized at the White House in 1994, the same year Meridian Hill was designated a National Historic Landmark. Though it is not official, many use the double moniker, Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park — recognizing both its grand history and its significance for the surrounding communities.
Today, with much of its infrastructure repaired and grace restored, Meridian Hill is once again a prime attraction and a neighborhood gem in the Rock Creek Park system.