When it comes to parks in D.C. (and D.C. in general), it's been a white man's world. This fact makes it all the more impressive that these turn-of-the-century ladies had a hand in creating some of the city's most iconic parks and landscapes.
A walkway in Montrose Park that used to be the site of the rope-making industry. NPS, 2008
Sarah Louise Rittenhouse
Rittenhouse proves that even before we ladies had the right to vote (thanks, 19th amendment!) organized women could hold political power and get things done.
Montrose Park, an unassuming, quiet patch of green space nestled close to Dumbarton Oaks Park in Georgetown, was once the site of an early 1800s industrial ropemaking operation and federal mansion. But, by the 1900s, the estate had been abandoned and marked for potential development.
Rittenhouse, a woman who grew up in the neighborhood, saw this as an opportunity to save the land and turn the beloved estate into the first local park in the area. She gathered a group of local women and lobbied the government to turn the aging estate into a park.
When Rittenhouse first brought her petition to Congress in 1904, it met resistance and failed. Speaker of the House Joe Cannon even said that he "wouldn't give a nickel to parkland anywhere." But through a woman-focused grassroots campaign, she managed to change the public perception of the proposed park. The federal government officially purchased the land in 1911. Today, you can find a sundial (or "armillary sphere") dedicated to her at the entrance of Montrose Park.
I call that a success for parks and women everywhere!
Sometimes you have to start small and work hard to make an impact on the world. Other times, you're the daughter of an oil tycoon with a passion for parkland and money to spend.
If you live in D.C., the name "Archbold" may sound familiar. In 1924, Anne Archbold, a turn-of-the-century oil heiress and international explorer, gifted 23 acres of her property to the US government in combination with an 80-acre donation from Charles Glover to create what we now know as Glover-Archbold Park.
Years later, after WWII, when the D.C. government planned to put a roadway through the middle of the park, Archbold was a key voice in advocating against the development. Thanks to her opposition, the park still stands as a natural respite from the rush of the city.
“It is beautifully wooded, with a wealth of wild flowers and bird life. Quiet pathways lead down it’s [sic] sides along the meandering creek bed with its sycamore-tulip tangles, furnishing restful retreats for adults and fascinating children. Such a beautiful park cannot be eliminated if Washington is to grow as a living organism with its parts in proper balance.”
- “Glover-Archbold Parkway”, Washington Post, May 30, 1953
"The essence of the enjoyment of a garden is that things should look as though they like to grow in it." - Beatrix Farrand
Around the same time that Sarah Louise Rittenhouse was fighting for Montrose Park, Beatrix Farrand was creating a name for herself in the male-dominated industry of landscape architecture. Though she was restricted from public projects because of her gender, she was sought out to design private gardens by some of the most prominent people and institutions of her time. Her 200+ works include some names you'll likely recognize, like the National Cathedral, the Biltmore Estate, Princeton, Yale, Acadia National Park, and even the White House. She was the only female founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Unfortunately, only a few of her gardens are still around today.
In D.C. we are lucky to experience and explore her masterpiece, and one of her few existing gardens, Dumbarton Oaks (now split into Dumbarton Oaks and Dumbarton Oaks Park.) Designed for the D.C. residence of diplomats Robert and Mildred Bliss, the landscape seamlessly incorporates natural elements, native plants, and American Arts and Crafts style with traditional Italian and English aesthetics.
I was excited to discover that some of my favorite parks in D.C. were designed, donated, protected, and championed by women. But, all of these women clearly came from a place of privilege that allowed them to have such large impacts. Wealth, education, social prominence, and their overall white-ness played a huge role in their success.
On the other side of the story are people like Sarah Whitby. Whitby was an African American woman who lived in what is now Rock Creek Park. Her family moved from North Carolina in the 1870s after the Civil War. Like many other African American migrants, she settled on the fringes of Washington, D.C. in what is now Rock Creek Park.
When the land was purchased and designated as a park in 1892, many of the houses were torn down. However, we know that Sarah lived and ran a laundering business in her home until at least 1900, when her name shows up on a census. The fancy, high-society buttons found at the site of her home tell a story of success and entrepreneurship in the face of adversity.
What happened to Sarah? Ultimately, she either moved on her own or was displaced. But either way, she left her own mark on the history of D.C.’s parks.
Rock Creek Conservancy occasionally hosts volunteer clean-ups, invasive species removals, and landscape restorations at Dumbarton Oaks Park, Montrose Park, and Glover-Archbold Park. For more details, click here.