Bil Browning

31 Days: Meridian Hill Park

Filed By Bil Browning | September 02, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Mary Foote Henderson, Meridian Hill Park, Washington D.C.

The backstory behind this photo is after the break.


I'm doing a series of posts for 31 days that will feature a photo from my personal collections and the backstory behind the picture. I'm trying to stick with shots that have not appeared on the site before. I'm using the stories as a writing exercise to help me prepare for writing a book. You can find the rest of the series posts here:

Meridian Hill Park is close to our house. The tumbling water, trees, and park area down the hill is spectacular although anyone who's been in DC for a while complains about the big building you can see at the end of the water feature. You can't see it in the photo, but the Washington Monument is directly behind that apartment building and until a developer interfered, it was one of the best views of the city.

I love the park and all of its quirks. A friend and I walked Frieda, my fox terrier, down to the park at the beginning of Spring and I took Jerame there as soon as I could so he could see it too. The park is long and narrow. This portion is the very end of a much larger area where families picnic, people play games, and directly behind where I'm standing to take the photo there's usually some sort of drum circle happening. I've seen as few as six drummers all the way up to 30 or 40. During the weekend you can usually hear the drums from blocks away.

The history of the area surrounding the park is absolutely fascinating. Greater Greater Washington had a recent story about Mary Foote Henderson that spells out the park's beginnings. The area was still rural when Henderson literally built a castle across the street.

She decided that the White House wasn't elegant enough for the President and drew up plans (twice) for a new executive mansion on Meridian Hill. She also built several mansions surrounding the area that became embassies and homes for cabinet members.

When the new presidential residence plans were rejected for being too opulent, she fought to have the Lincoln memorial built there but eventually settled on a park. Unfortunately, that meant a lot of African-Americans had to get the shaft.

After many years of persistent lobbying, Mary succeeded in 1910 in getting Congress to authorize the purchase of land for construction of Meridian Hill Park across 16th Street from Boundary Castle where she had previously hoped a new Executive Mansion would be built. She argued that the stunning views from this site as well as the opportunity for elegant terracing and cascades made the spot ideal for a formal park.

As Congress and city officials were won over, no one seemed to care that the site was already densely occupied by African-Americans living in mostly single-story frame houses. Since the Civil War, African Americans had settled in this area, which had been just outside the city limits. The future park site had been subdivided in 1867, and many of its residents owned their own homes. They were all forced to leave.

Later, Mary Henderson would boast to a reporter that "we bought out the owners of the shacks on our hill and pulled them down." Once the land was cleared, it took many years to construct the park, one of the most beautiful in the city. No trace remains of its previous inhabitants.

Henderson was also notable for her dinner parties. She served only meat-free dishes and no alcohol was allowed. Her husband, Senator John Brooks Henderson of Missouri, was a co-sponsor of the 13th Amendment banning slavery.

All in all, a fascinating story - and if you want to know more about the castle, you'll have to hit the link.

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