Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Public Spaces

May Day in 1924 was a surprisingly big deal

Today is May Day, a springtime celebration that over the past century has transformed into a time to recognize the importance of play (and playgrounds to play on) for children. In 1924, DC had quite the May Day commemoration.


Maypole dance at a DC playground on May 1, 1924. Photo from the Library of Congress.

The playground movement, which latched onto May Day as its annual events became more established, led to the founding of the Playground Association of America (PAA) in 1906. The PAA's basic belief was that playgrounds were as much a necessity to children's physical and emotional health as schools. Due in large part to the PAA's support and assistance, the number of municipalities with playgrounds in America grew from 90 in 1907 to 531 in 1910.

Susie Root Rhodes, the District's playgrounds supervisor took extra efforts to make May Day a success in 1924 because it coincided with the American Child Health Association's Health Week.

Rhodes began planning for May 1st two months in advance, organizing festivities at 26 playgrounds across the city in places that included Park View, Bloomingdale, McKinley, and Rosedale, to name just a few.

"Fairies, flowers, and queens, personified in several hundred children," wrote the Washington Post in the lead up.

The day began at 9:00 am, when three little children from the Child Welfare Society hung a May basket for First Lady Grace Coolidge on the north door of the White House. After placing the basket, the children were running down the steps when Mrs. Coolidge called them back to thank them. She hugged and kissed James Owens, the youngest among them.

"I once had a little boy like you," she told him.

At Keith's, a historical theater close to the White House, Grace Abbott of the US Children's Bureau spoke for an hour. The Children's Bureau was the first federal agency within the US government—and the world—to focus exclusively on improving the lives of children and families, tackling issues like infant mortality, the birth rate, orphanages, juvenile courts, and diseases that are common among children.

Later in the day, celebrations moved toward city playgrounds, where May queens who were elected by friends from their neighborhood playground presided over 4:00 pm festivals.


May Queen Margaret Appleby (center) on the Park View playground on May Day in 1924. Photo from the Library of Congress.

During their fleeting reigns, May Queens watched over athletic contests, folk dances, the dances of the flowers and fairies, and the maypole. Events ended at 6:00 pm.

The District's May Day celebrations of days past were, at their core, a public voice of support for quality playgrounds and organized programming around the city. Both are still important to residents today.

Palisades' humble rec center exemplifies great park planning

In the 1930s, architects carefully planned the Palisades Recreation Center to take advantage of its location overlooking the Potomac River. 80 years later, it's still an informative model for park planning.


The Palisades Recreation Center today, looking from the north. Photo by the author.

Designers carefully planned the rec center, at 5200 Sherrier Place NW, to be more than just a collection of ball fields and playgrounds. They oriented buildings to take advantage of natural vistas, located baseball diamonds so their outfields double as public greens, and used unpretentious but beautiful architecture to balance the need for man-made structures with the surrounding natural beauty.

The result is a 13-acre green space that's as much a small national park as it is community playground.

Unlike other DC playgrounds established in the 1920s and 1930s, the Palisades rec center was designed by the National Park Service (NPS) as part of the Public Works Administration. The rec center opened to the public on September 11th, 1936. As of a 2014 study, the field house is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

But changes began to come in 2008 with DC's first artificial turf soccer field, and continued in 2013 with a new playground. Now, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the Department of General Services are developing a plan to address the aging field house, as part of DPR's Play DC initiative.


A site plan for the Palisades rec center from late in 1935. Though this isn't the final plan, the building, the overlook, and the baseball field are all present. All images from the National Parks Service except where noted.

How it all happened

Thomas Chalmers Vint, an architect and landscape architect, supervised design and construction of the project between 1934 and 1936. Vint advocated the idea of having master plans for parks, to look at them comprehensively from planning through to construction. At many parks or monuments today, Vint's influence can still be seen in fine rustic buildings, bridges, and in how developed areas blend with the environment.

The NPS made park development plans mandatory in 1929. Under Vint's leadership, five-year plans became the standard for streamlining landscape preservation and park development.

At Palisades, Vint played an active role in the field house's design and setting. Plans for the site prior to Vint's involvement, from 1931, show a grouping of small buildings at the northern end of the property. That plan failed to materialize, and so community members pushed for a field house in early 1934. That coincided with Vint's move to Washington to become Chief Architect of NPS' Branch of Plans in Designs.

Planning for the new recreation center got underway in February 1935. Plans for both the playground and the building evolved, as designers tried to find a scheme that worked. They went through four different building proposals until settling on the eventual design, each plan being more informal and in harmony with nature than the one before.


An early Palisades rec center design from February 20, 1935.


A design from July 22, 1935.

The final design, dated October 1, 1935, is an asymmetrical three-part red-brick structure. The result is a building that looks informal and vernacular.


The final rec center design, approved October 4, 1935.

The grounds

Based on the building's asymmetry, its placement toward the southern end of the playground, and its orientation facing north-south, we know that every effort went into ensuring the field house did not overpower the natural beauty of the site. Instead, the building enhanced and was subservient to that beauty.

The building, along with its southern facing terrace, functions as a scenic overlook to the Potomac River. Palisades is the only Washington playground to have such a feature. This was, again, a result of Vint's oversight and experience.

While the overlook is the most notable feature of the site, others include a baseball diamond, tennis courts, a nature trail, and an outdoor picnic area. All are in places where they're unobtrusive and subordinate to nature. For example, the baseball infield and tennis courts are along the trolley right of way on the northeast border of the property, leaving less intense uses for the property interior.

It is particularly noteworthy that the baseball diamond's home plate is at the north end of the field, both giving residents fast access to home plate, and allowing the outfield to double as a meadow when people aren't playing baseball. We know that was intentional based on plans from 1935.


A partial site plan, dated July 17, 1935. It notes the meadow (which is the baseball field) and overlook.

Continue the legacy

The 1930s may be a long time ago, but we need good parks as much today as we did then. As DPR renovates Washington's aging parks, it will be important for today's generation of planners to think of these places in comprehensive terms, and not as only locations for active sports fields.

Washington needs strong long-term planning if it's going to manage its public resources efficiently and equitably. DPR's Play DC master plan is a good overall approach in concept. But it's still prone to piecemeal planning since DPR and DGS only plan for projects that have dedicated funding. This ad hoc approach makes it hard to create master plans, and hard to prioritize long term visions.

The Palisades Recreation Center's mid-1930s design is an example of how master planning can and should apply to Washington's recreation areas.

An entrance at the Van Ness Metro station is about to close for three years

The escalator at the western entrance of the Van Ness Metro station needs serious work. Three years' worth, to be exact.


Photo from WMATA.

When WMATA closed Van Ness' eastern entrance for five months in 2013, it seemed like an eternity. But that's nothing compared to the three years the agency is estimating this project is going to take.

Like with the eastern entrance, I'm concerned about safety for people on foot, as more of them will have to cross Connecticut Avenue to enter the Metro on the east side.

The closure is scheduled to start on May 4th. But why's it set to last so long? Because WMATA isn't just replacing the one escalator at the western entrance; it's also replacing the three long escalators that descend into the station to the mezzanine.

Workers will tackle each escalator replacement one at a time, and the work will be done only when the station is closed. That will stretch the work to 40 weeks per escalator, or approximately three years. It's not clear why WMATA needs to keep the west side closed while working on the internal escalators.

To the north of the station, the sidewalk on the east side of Connecticut is closed for Park Van Ness construction and will remain so until at least the end of the year. That means Metro-bound pedestrians crossing Connecticut at Albemarle to avoid the work zone will have to cross the avenue again at Windom Place, which only has a crosswalk on the north side.

Every weekday, Metrobus carries scores of commuters to the Van Ness Metro stop. They, too, will be crossing busy Connecticut Avenue, this time at Veazey Street.


The Van Ness Metro station, with Windom Place to the north and Veazey Terrace to the south. Base image from Google Maps.

It is frustrating to receive notice of this project less than two weeks before it is to begin, especially since the planning process likely took months. WMATA should have used the time to reach out to DDOT and prepare a pedestrian safety plan, but nothing of the sort is mentioned in Metro's news release.

In October 2013, shortly after Metro announced the five-month closure of the eastern entrance, I spoke to Ann Chisholm in the Office of Government Relations at WMATA. She mentioned the possibility of lengthening the crossing time on Connecticut at Veazey. However, she was concerned about DDOT wanting a traffic study, which would hold up the project.

WMATA dropped the ball in 2013. I intend to learn more about how it's going to avoid doing the same next week.

This post originally appeared on Forest Hills Connection.

Transit to Wolf Trap will still run through West Falls Church

Despite speculation that the Silver Line might change how the Fairfax Connector runs to Wolf Trap, the service's Route 480 Wolf Trap Express will continue to run from West Falls Church this season. While some Silver Line stations are closer, it turns out West Falls Church still makes sense.


Photo from FCDOT.

According to Nicholas Perfili, the Fairfax Connector section chief, Wolf Trap and Fairfax County DOT officials did discuss the possibility of changing the service to run from a station on the Silver Line. Ultimately, they decided against it.

West Falls Church still has a lot to offer

The main reason for keeping the current routing is to make sure concert goers can stay at Wolf Trap for as long as possible. While the last train to DC leaves Spring Hill at 11:18 pm during the week, the last train from West Falls leaves at 11:32. Concerts can run late into the evening, and those extra few minutes can be the difference between having to leave before a show ends and catching the encore.

Perfili also pointed out that the route from West Falls Church to Wolf Trap offers a more reliable trip time because it has HOV-2 restrictions on the Dulles Connector Road and a bus-on-shoulder lane that lets buses bypass other traffic. Also, a bus from Spring Hill would be subject to Tysons congestion, which can be quite bad.


Photo from FCDOT.

While there's ample parking at West Falls Church, there isn't at any of the Tysons stations. A final thing West Falls Church has that the others don't: room for buses to park and wait if need be.

The Wolf Trap Express will undergo one change this year: it will now use West Falls Church's Bus Bay E, which is closer than Bay B, which it used to use. The move comes thanks to the Silver Line, which made it possible to cut the number of buses needing to run through West Falls Church.

That means that, albeit indirectly, the Silver Line is making trips to Wolf Trap shorter... if only by a few feet.

See the beginnings of the Purple Line in Silver Spring

The Purple Line may still face some hurdles in Annapolis, but Montgomery County is already planning for its arrival. This construction project at the Silver Spring Library is making room for the light rail:


Construction at Silver Spring Library. Photo by Matt Johnson.

The worker on the right is installing a detectable warning surface, which most people know as the bumpy strip that tells a blind person they're about to step into a road or rail line.

Once the surface is complete, it will be very obvious that the space, which connects to a larger public plaza, is part of a transit station.

The station will be one of two in downtown Silver Spring, a major destination for the Purple Line. It will anchor a new mixed-use development going up, which will include a coffee shop, gallery space, and affordable housing for seniors in addition to a new library.


Rendering of the completed station. Image from MTA.

Purple Line rails and trains are still a ways off. Still, it's nice to see the beginnings of such a major project coming together already.

NoMa's M Street underpass is turning into a park, of sorts

The M Street underpass, outside the NoMa Metro station, is going to be an outdoor art project. LED lights will illuminate the sidewalk, hopefully turning a dreary scene into a park-like gathering spot.


Photo by NoMa BID DC on Flickr.

Called "Rain," the installation's lights will hang inside tubes along the underpass' ceiling, creating a drizzling effect when people walk by.

The M Street project is the first of four underpasses that the NoMa Parks Foundation hopes to fill with art. The others are at Florida Avenue and L, and K Streets, NE.

Though it's not green space, the project will be a welcome addition to a part of town relatively devoid of parks. Protected from (actual) rain, snow, and summer heat, it should make the underpass a more inviting place.

"Our tunnel proposal for NoMa does what all good urban parks do: it offers a moment of openness, a space to breathe, and a place where thoughts can drift away," read a Parks Foundation press release.

The Parks Foundation selected Thurlow Small Architecture + NIO architects as the project's designers.

The firm's submission was part of an initial pool of nearly 250, and it was selected from a group of 10 finalists. The designers and construction team will be on-hand for a community meeting next Monday evening at the Lobby Project.

Ask GGW: The W&OD Trail's sharp turn

A reader recently wondered why the Washington and Old Dominion Trail turns sharply at Idylwood Park next to I-66 in Falls Church instead of tunneling under the interstate and Metro. "Was this by design when they were constructing I-66?" asked Mark Scheufler.


The W&OD Trail where it meets I-66. Base image from Google Maps.

After the W&OD railroad stopped running in 1968, VDOT bought some of the right-of-way to use for the alignment of I-66. The rest of the W&OD right-of-way was sold to VEPCO (which later became Dominion).

In 1977, the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority came to an agreement with VEPCO to purchase segments of the W&OD right-of-way as funding became available, which in turn enabled NVRPA to construct the trail. Incidentally, this was also the same year that the "Coleman Agreement" allowed for the construction of I-66 inside the Beltway.

A W&OD extension came first, as the trail was completed between Falls Church and Vienna in 1979, including the section across I-66.

It is unclear why the W&OD was routed along the edge of Idylwood Park and across Virginia Lane instead of cutting straight through. One possibility is that NVRPA and VEPCO couldn't come to an agreement on the right-of-way between I-66 and Virginia Lane. Another possibility is that VDOT objected to a trail tunnel and thus forced NVRPA to use the park and Virginia Lane.

It's more likely, though, that the decision was a cost-saving measure. At the time, NVRPA was trying to locate funding to purchase the W&OD right-of-way and build trail segments. Using the already-planned Virginia Lane overpass over I-66 would have allowed VDOT and NVRPA to save money over the cost of a separate trail tunnel.

The trail diversion happens at a pretty sharp angle and it involves a hill climb. But the existing path along the edge of Idylwood Park and Virginia Lane is only about 400 feet longer than a routing that would've stayed in the rail right-of-way. For a bicyclist averaging 10 mph, that's less than 30 seconds.

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