Saturday, May 24, 2014

Meridian Hill Park

Centuries younger than the famous European capitals, Washington, DC isn't known for the sort of casual architectural landmarks found in London, Paris, and Rome.  When tourists come to town, they tread the length of the National Mall, they tour the Smithsonian museums, and they peer up at the significant monuments and memorials, but DC, I'm sad to say, doesn't inspire the kind of aimless sightseeing that is so encouraged across the pond.  Most visitors to the European cities mentioned above know that the best secrets will be uncovered by meandering the streets without a map; unfortunately, that rarely seems to happen in my hometown.

It's too bad, really, because DC boasts of some of the world's most beautiful historic estates, intimate art galleries, and lush public gardens, many of which won't be seen by harried tourists with a checklist of attractions to power through but which are so worth a wander.  One of my favorites, conveniently around the corner from my apartment, is Meridian Hill Park.

So named because a marker placed on the hill directly north of the White House established a longitudinal meridian for the city, Meridian Hill Park was acquired in 1816 by Commodore David Porter, a naval hero of the War of 1812.  Porter built a grand mansion on his new estate, but the land was used as an army encampment during the Civil War and, shortly thereafter, the mansion was destroyed in a fire and the estate was parceled out into smaller plots of land to accommodate the post-war growth and prosperity that DC enjoyed.  Meridian Hill was bought by a wealthy former senator named John Brooks Henderson, who built a castle on the west side of the park; his wife, Mary Foote Henderson, planned and built a succession of extravagant houses flanking the park on either side.  (The castle no longer stands, though you can still see its retaining wall on 16th Street, but many of the mansions, now embassies, still do!)

In 1901, after much lobbying from Mrs. Henderson, the Senate Park Commission approved a national park on Meridian Hill and it was established by an Act of Congress on June 25, 1910.  Designed by landscape architects George Burnap, Horace Peaslee, and Ferruccio Vitale, the 12-acre site was based on the formal gardens of an Italian aristocrat's private residence and boasts the largest cascading fountain in North America.  It was dedicated in 1936 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994.

Meridian Hill Park has been used for political rallies and concerts over the decades, but I love it best on quiet Saturday mornings, when Charlie and I share the paths with joggers and the lawn is dotted here and there with yoga mats, and on Sunday afternoons, when the grass is crowded with picnicking friends and the whole park dances with the energy of the weekly drum circle.

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  1. So beautiful! And if you didn't know better, this could totally be a lovely spot in Europe.

  2. I know, right? it's nice to close my eyes and dream of Paris... until Charlie yanks my arm because we saw a squirrel on a tree :P

  3. That park is near your apartment?! Get out! It's gorgeous! I'm with Casey, it looks like it's straight from Europe, maybe England or Scotland. Either way, you're a lucky duck :)

  4. Gorgeous pictures! As I mentioned in one of my other comments, you live in such a vibrant area- I sometimes wish we lived around there too (sans the traffic). We just made a driving trek to Florida to see my in-laws and we stopped in Old Town Alexandria for the night and what I wouldn't have given to wander around there aimlessly for a week. Same goes for DC- my husband and I did 3 days down there before we had our kids but we hit up most of the tourist sites because I had never been there before! We were exhausted by the time we were done, but I think it would be fantastic to have an extended period to just wander and see what's what.

  5. I was just in DC visiting a friend, and I do plan to go back, so I am definitely going to have to reference your blog next time I do!! (perhaps a blogger meetup is in the cards as well.) :)


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