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From the Serial Set: What was the D.C. Parks Commission?

Though it’s cold outside, you can explore Washington, D.C., through early illustrations of some of its most well-known landmarks. Today, we’ll be looking through the pages of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set to learn more about the 1901 plans of a Park Commission tasked with improving D.C.’s public areas.

In 1902, the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia (1816-1977) published a report on the developments and improvements of the District of Columbia park system. The report opens with the history of the project, which began in 1900 during the centennial celebration of the District becoming the seat of the U.S. federal government. (2 Stat. 55) During the celebration preparations, in which Congress was involved, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) published plans on the development of public spaces and buildings in Washington, D.C. The AIA’s legislative committee and the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia then collaborated in the preparation of the development project. (S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st Sess. at 8 (1902) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4258.)

The Park Commission was inspired by ancient Roman and European palatial architecture. One of the members was Charles F. McKim, an architect who designed the Boston Public Library. (S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st Sess. at 9 (1902) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4258.) The Corcoran Gallery exhibited the Park Commission’s drawings, plans, and models in 1902, and later gave the resources to the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, where they are accessible today.

The “great and impressive gateway to Washington,” or Union Station, is the first. “The plans call for a station eight feet and eight inches longer than the Capitol, the building to be of white marble, the façade to be Roman in style of architecture…the new station will front upon a plaza…where bodies of troops or large organizations can be formed during inaugural times.” (S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st Sess. at 16 (1902) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4258).

Black and white illustration of the plan for Union Station, facing the structure northwest. A tiered fountain is in the plaza in front of a tall rectangular building with Roman-style arches.

“Proposed New Union Station.” S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st Sess. (1902) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4258. Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

Other monuments included are the Lincoln Memorial, Memorial Bridge, Analostan Island, and Arlington National Cemetery. Congress passed 32 Stat. 486 in 1902 to officially design and erect a memorial for President Lincoln. The planned memorial “should possess the quality of universality, and also it should have a character essentially distinct from that of any monument either now existing in the District or hereafter to be erected,” stylistically “a great portico of Doric columns rising from an unbroken stylobate.” (S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st Sess. at 52 (1902) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4258.)

Black and white illustration of the proposed Lincoln memorial, facing the structure northwest. A rectangular building held up by Roman columns . In front of the memorial is a tiered fountain that spans the length of the structure.

“No. 49 – Showing the Proposed Development of the Lincoln Memorial Site, Seen from the Canal.” S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st Sess. (1902) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4258. Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

The Commission proposed two options for the development of Rock Creek Parkway. The first was to “build a large covered masonry…sewer for the creek, and to fill around and over this structure so as to obliterate the valley and raise it to the level of the adjacent lands, constructing a parkway or boulevard upon a portion of the filled land and subdividing the remainder into streets and lots for sale.” The second aimed to “improve the present open channel of the creek, regrade its banks, and improve them for park purposes” and then constructing “roads and paths within…spanning the valley by frequent street bridges.” (S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st Sess. at 85 (1902) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4258.)

Black and white illustration of the aerial view of the proposed National Mall, looking southwest from above the U.S. Capitol Building.

“No. 37 – View Showing the Proposed Treatment of Union Square, At the Head of the Mall.” S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st Sess. (1902) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4258. Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

The park itself is described beautifully. “Most of the land is timbered and much of the wood is of considerable age and beauty, especially in the narrow and gorge-like portions of the valley…[which] has recently been made accessible by a macadamized road, known as Beach Drive…which…has brought a large number of visitors into the valley to enjoy the beauty of its scenery.” (S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st Sess. at 88 (1902) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4258.)

For further learning, the National Park Service offers free access to a book entitled Designing the Nation’s Capital: the 1901 Plan for Washington, D.C., which features a chapter about the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia’s plan for the development of the park system. We hope you enjoy these lovely images of D.C. as much as we do!

Black and white panorama view of the Washington D.C. landscape from across the Anacostia River. The Washington monument is visible in the center background.

“Panorama of the City of Washington from Anacostia, Typical of Views from the Proposed Ridge Parks.” S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st Sess. (1902) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4258. Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

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