Wednesday, April 25, 2012

McMillan Park

For over three decades I have been driving past McMillan Park, a 25-acre patch of green space situated off North Capitol Street at Michigan Avenue, NE.  The park is adjacent to the Bloomingdale and Stronghold neighborhoods and their rowhouses constructed around 1910.  It is also situated east of the McMillan Reservoir, formerly known as the Washington City Reservoir completed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, in 1902.  This reservoir joined the existing Dalecarlia and Georgetown reservoirs to hold water transported from the Potomac River by the Washington Aqueduct (completed in 1864) and continues to serve as the water supply system for the District of Columbia.  What makes McMillan Park unique, however, and what has long caught my attention, are the two rows of ivy-covered round brick silos.  Beginning in 1905, these functioned as key elements the city’s first sand filtration water treatment facility and a key component of the municipal water system.
McMillan Park was opened to the public circa 1910 and remained a popular and frequently visited commons created by the US Senate Park Improvement Commission, chaired by Senator James McMillan, a Michigan Republican.  This commission was largely responsible for expanding and enhancing Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the nation’s capital.  The park itself was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. (1870-1957), one of this country’s preeminent landscape architects who managed to merge the park’s recreational possibilities with those of the engineering marvel hidden beneath it.  The park remained open to the public until the beginning of World War II when it was fenced in to protect the city’s water supply and the filtration system from sabotage. After the war, access remained restricted and the park continued to be closed to the public.  

The Army Corps of Engineers eventually replaced the park’s slow sand filtration system in 1985 with a newer and faster mechanical sand filtration system located across First Street, NW and directly adjacent to the McMillan Reservoir.  Instead of reopening McMillan Park to the public, the federal government declared the property surplus in 1986 and the District of Columbia government purchased it the following year.  Although obsolete and abandoned, the District recognizing its contribution to the growth of the city, designated it a historic site in August 1991 while continuing to restrict public access to the former park.  The fences remain in place while the District has entertained various plans to develop the site, each of which the local community has rejected in the hope of maintaining the historical flavor of the adjacent neighborhood and recognizing the park’s recreational and commercial potential.

This past weekend the local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, non-governmental entities that advise the District government on issues affecting their local areas, sponsored an “open-house” at McMillan Park.  The gate was swung open, and after signing a waiver form, over 300 visitors were permitted to wander the entire site and have an up-close look at the long-abandoned water filtration complex.  

I was finally able to closely inspect these brick silos I have been admiring from a distance and to learn some of the history of the place.  This slow sand filtration system, which was first employed in the United States in 1872,  was designed to purify untreated surface water taken from the Potomac River and stored in the city’s reservoirs thereby making it potable and free from water-borne diseases such as typhoid and other communicable diseases.  According to the World Health Organization, "Under suitable circumstances, slow sand filtration may be not only the cheapest and simplest but also the most efficient method of water treatment" since they require little or no electricity or other mechanical power, chemicals or replaceable parts.

There is more here than first meets the eye.  Interspersed along the row of circular brick silos, which were used to store clean sand, are concrete sand washers and a series of small rectangular brick regulators houses that controlled the flow of water in and out of the twenty one-acre underground filter cells located beneath this broad expanse of grass.  There is also a paved promenade linking the various components of the water treatment facility.  Considering these structures have been abandoned and left to the elements for almost three decades, they are in remarkably good shape. 

The future of McMillan Park is currently unknown, but it seems to me that some sort of adaptable reuse can be found for this fascinating piece of Washington history.  It would be a shame for the District to allow unsympathetic developers to do what time and the weather have failed to do.  But the clock is ticking on McMillan park and I fear that money will speak louder than the rest of us.  I am glad I finally had an opportunity to see it.

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