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Franklin Square: Park or Parking? Evolution of a Public Space

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

In a milestone moment in DC’s urban development, plans are underway  for a complete refit of Franklin Park — by the District of Columbia, not the National Park Service (NPS). In the Spring of 2019, Congress passed the Federal Lands bill; a provision in the bill allowed the District of Columbia to contract for improvements to parks under National Park Service jurisdiction. The District government chose Franklin Square to be the first to be transformed, given this new opportunity. The District has been constantly frustrated by the inability of the underfunded NPS to adequately maintain its parks in the District.

Map of Franklin Park, circa 1905, published in the Annual Report of the War Department, Volume VII Report of the Chief of Engineers, for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1905. The Office of Public Buildings and Grounds which maintained the park fell under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Franklin Square is a very early exception to the L’Enfant and Ellicott design for the city of Washington. What is now the park was simply originally Square 249, one of the 1,148 squares making up the privately owned, buildable portion of the city. Nearby spaces would become McPherson and Farragut Squares — equally spaced, sited athwart the avenues projecting from the White House (Vermont and Connecticut, respectively). Franklin fits no pattern, it being a later addition.

Square 249 did have one precious resource — a powerful spring. The square was commonly called “Fountain Square.” This spring fed a stream which traversed central Washington and emptied into Tiber Creek near 10th and C Streets, NW. This stream can be seen (faintly) on the 1818 map of Washington City by Robert King, where it skirts the hills which stretched east/west from 9th Street to the White House and north/south from H to E Streets.

“A map of the city of Washington in the District of Columbia, established as the permanent seat of the government of the United States of America.”
Robert King. (Washington, W. Cooper, 1818). image–Library of Congress, Geography and Maps Div.

Early Washington’s water supply derived from a variety of springs and streams. Garnett P. Williams in Washington, D.C.’s Vanishing Springs and Waterways compiled a list of over 30 springs supplying drinking water in the 19th century. [1]

Detail of Robert King’s 1818 “Map of the city of Washington” overlaid with current square boundaries and with the course of the Franklin stream highlighted. image—prepared by author.

Major federal buildings derived their (increasingly inadequate) water supply from these springs. The White House was supplied from Franklin Spring — which led to the purchase of square 249 by the federal government.

The acquisition took well over a decade. The process began in 1818 and Congress first passing legislation in 1819 and appropriating $9,125 to purchase land and to construct pipes “. . . for supplying the executive offices and President’s house. . . .” The owner of the land (conveniently not named) evidently wanted more money and the project was not carried out. In 1824 it was reported that “. . . the proprietor of the lot of land, proposed to be purchased, by demanding what was considered a most exorbitant price, prevented the act, first above mentioned, from being carried into effect, and no disbursements took place under it.”

Four years earlier, in 1820, the city of Washington explored creating a reservoir to contain and store the water from the spring. The water was next piped downhill to 13th and F Streets — the heart of the city. In 1823 and 1824 iron pipes were laid to bring the water into the city. The city spent $10 to experiment with stoneware pipes; evidently not a success. In 1829 and 1830 a total of $9,246.94 was appropriated to purchase square 249 (including the springs). The pipes were constructed and finally the White House and executive buildings had a reliable water supply. The purchase of the square was finally completed in 1832 by Joseph Elgar, the city surveyor and commissioner of public buildings — after “much difficulty,”as he reported to Congressman George Corbin Washington. [2]

Joseph Elgar’s report on the acquisition of Square 249. (Published in “Public Improvements in Washington,”, Feb. 15, 1832, from “Reports Of Committees of The House of Representatives at the First Session Of The Twenty-Second Congress, Begun and held At The City of Washington, December 7, 1831. 22d Congress, 1st Session, H. Rep. No. 291”)

By the late 1840s Washington’s population was outgrowing the available supply of water, almost quadrupling in a half-century, from 14,000 in 1800 to 51,000 in 1850. A fire in the Library of Congress at the Capitol on Christmas of 1851 heightened fears about the inadequacy of the water supply. Congress had the previous September made a token appropriation for a study of how to develop a better water supply for the city. Lieutenant Montgomery Meigs wrote a magisterial report, that included the call, “Let our Aqueduct be worthy of the Nation . . .”, and Congress quickly appropriated the necessary funds. On January 3, 1859, just eight years after the fire at the Capitol, Potomac River water flowed through Washington’s water mains. To celebrate, water jetted 100 feet in the air through those pipes at a new fountain at the foot of Capitol Hill, with Meigs and other notables in attendance. [3] But the Aqueduct water was not initially filtered, making the supply from the city’s springs still attractive for the next half-century.

Franklin Square (origin of the name is unknown) remained undeveloped until after the Civil War. Some indication of what the square looked like in that era can be seen in an 1861 Civil War image.

The photograph (dated Jun 11, 1861) shows the New York 12th Regiment in formation in Franklin Square, in front of a series of barracks. Some of the barracks are festooned with laundry. The view is probably from the southwest corner of the square. The war wrought tremendous wear and tear on the physical landscape and structures of Washington. George J. Olszewski at page 9 in his book Franklin Park, Washington, D.C., in 1866 the park was described as being handsomely laid out by the public gardener in accordance with the plans of Col. E. B. French, the engineer officer in charge of public buildings and grounds. By the 1870s the park’s hilly landscape was maturing pleasantly. It has been suggested this was inspired by Andrew Jackson Downing’s plans for Lafayette Square in the 1850s. [4]

Detail from “First summer of the rebellion, Franklin Square, ‘The N.Y. 12th'” Jun. 11, 1861. (New York 12th Regiment in formation in Franklin Square, in front of a series of barracks. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

In the 1850s Franklin Square was much the hinterland of Washington City. Fashionable Washington still resided on F Street east of the White House or near Judiciary Square, with a scattering around Lafayette Square. One of the earliest homes built around Franklin Square was that of a Mr. Lindsay. [5] It crowned the hill at 13th and K Streets and had a panoramic view of the square. A few years later another house was built immediately adjacent. The block to the south was built up by 1861, but only a few structures existed on the block to the west.

The park and the neighborhood around it grew up together after the Civil War into a quite fashionable neighborhood as diplomats and wealthy Washingtonians built residences on the crest of the hill that K Street traversed from 12th Street to Connecticut Avenue. A pioneer in the area was Congressman James A. Garfield who built a house on a lot fronting the park immediately on its east side in 1869, a house he and his family lived in until he became president and moved to the Executive Mansion.

[Editor’s Note: Two years ago the What Once Was feature highlighted an essay about President Garfield, titled “Washington’s most memorialized (and least known) President.”]

Baist Atlas image showing location of the Garfield house in the lower portion (corner of 13th & I Sts.) and Franklin School above on the K St. end of the block. image–Library of Congress, Geography and Map Div.

In the same year, 1869, on the east side of the park but further up the block from Garfield’s home, the City of Washington built the Franklin School, which has recently been restored and now occupied by the Museum of the Word.

On the north side of of Franklin Square, along K Street, the latest trend in Washington’s residential development appeared — a multiple-house row with elaborate architectural detail. Together, the houses were called Franklin Terrace. (Other impressive Victorian rows were built nearby on K Street, and elsewhere around the city — on Capitol Hill, on F Street in Foggy Bottom.)

Franklin Terrace, 1300 block of K St., NW, circa 1875. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Some here were designed by Adolph Cluss, fronting that very broad K street. And it was here where Washington first experimented with street “parkings” rather than pave the full width of the street’s sidewalks, as we reported nearly four years ago in this pace, on April 6, 1870 Congress authorized that    a portion was to be set aside “as parks for trees and walks . . . to be adorned with shade-trees, walks, and enclosed with curb stones.”

But Washington continued to grow. The city shifted west and the old centers of population and business moved; the Judiciary Square neighborhood declined, the residents of the center city — blocks of F Street between 11th and 15th Streets –moved away. Lafayette Square’s neighborhood developed, as did the part of Foggy Bottom nearest the White House.

As Washington continued to grow and expand the residential population shifted farther and farther into Washington’s suburbs — the old County of Washington above Florida Avenue. At the same time, businesses were shifting north to K Street — pushing out even the most beautiful and elaborate residences — and to Connecticut Avenue; Franklin Square lost its residential neighborhood.

In 1914 the statue of Commodore John Barry was dedicated at the west side of the park, prompting a redesign of the landscape there, including relocating the what had originally been the watchman’s lodge and ;later expanded to include a public restrooms to the park’s east side.

The next turning point for Franklin Square was in 1936. By the 1930s the landscape of the park was worn out by heavy use and the park’s situation needed to be addressed. By that year the Mid-City Citizens’ Association was hearing plans for renovation of the park from C. Marshall Finnan and Malcolm Kirkpatrick, the superintendent and landscape architect, respectively, of the National Capital Parks (NPS). [6] But other very different plans had been in the air for a decade.

Conversion to surface parking had been the threatened fate of Franklin Square as early as 1924, as a way of coping with Washington’s love affair with the automobile. The “traffic problem” concentrated District government minds, including that of Engineer Commissioner Major James F. Bell and a variety of open space locations were suggested for conversion to automobile parking. First in consideration was the space on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Center Market. Albert Headley, chief of the Traffic Bureau, also suggested Franklin Square. Protests ensued. [7]

“Widening K Street, Franklin Square As Auto Park Planned” (Washington Post, Aug 6, 1924.

Letters to the editor in the Washington Post illustrated the variety of opinion, such as this one from a “Business Man” headlined “Would utilize all parks”:

“There is plenty of good park space that can be used for parking cars besides Franklin park. . . . The Ellipse is waste ground and should be used for parking cars. The White House grounds could be cut down one-half without discommoding the presidential family. . . . Lafayette square is another unnecessarily large waste space. . . . The Union Station plaza, the Capitol plaza and Judiciary square are good parking spaces. . . .” [8]

In 1936 Illinois Congressman (and future Senator) Everett Dirksen resurrected the conversion of parks to parking plans. [9] But, since in that same year Franklin Park was rehabilitated with $73,000 of Works Progress Administration funding, that park could no longer be in contention. [10]

Evening Star reporter James E. Chinn in 1936 could refer to the “. . . comparatively new [private] parking lot business” as he investigated sharp practices by operators. District licensing of parking structures had only been in place since 1932.

William A. Roberts, the people’s counsel (on the staff of the Public Utilities Commission), suggested creating a District-financed corporation to build and operate parking garages. Washington’s most well-known parking structure was the Capital Garage in the 1300 block of New York Avenue, NW, built in 1926. In 1940 the Star Parking Plaza at 10th and E Streets, NW, opened to architectural acclaim — the façade faced with John J. Early’s unique processed concrete mosaic. [11]

Circa 1940 view of the Star Parking Plaza by Harris & Ewing Photographic Studio. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Charles Upham, the new chairman of the Motor Vehicle Parking Agency, in 1949 suggested (in an ironic twist) a downtown parking ban. [12] Traditional planning positions shifted, and in 1950 Irving C. Root, head of the National Park Service, offered up some federal land for automobile parking. The American Automobile Association made several suggestions, including converting Western Market at 21st and K Streets, NW into combined parking and market and transforming the plaza on 14th Street south of the District Building, mid-block and across from the Department of Commerce, where the Strauss fountain was located (now the site of the Ronald Reagan Building) into “. . . a beautiful parking area with underground garages.” [13]

In 1951 The Washington Post reported “$18.8 Million Urged for D.C. Parking Sites,” [14] describing a report calling for 30,000 additional parking spaces citywide and 7,000 downtown. Finding that much private land at a reasonable price wasn’t possible, leading to the recommendation that the District assemble it by condemnation.

In 1952 plans for Franklin Square parking resurfaced. The land underneath the park would be leased to an investor syndicate. That syndicate was to construct a two-level underground garage and lease it back to the DC government. After initial approval by the District Commissioners, the traffic and highway departments, and the Motor Vehicle Parking Agency (MVPA) — though that agency reversed itself and came out against the plan. Private development plans were about to bring 1,000 to 1,400 parking spaces online — barring competition from the Franklin Square plan. [15] The American Automobile Association of the District of Columbia had strongly supported the proposal. Charles M. Upham chaired the MVPA [16]. Edward J. Kelley of National Capital Parks also served on the MVPA. In November of 1952 National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth, Irving Root’s successor, voiced strong opposition to the parking plan, and that squelched the Franklin Square effort.

Excerpt from reporter Sam Tagono’s Nov. 15, 1952 story, “Shelve Park Garage Plan, Agency Asks: Underground Stand Reversed by Group To Permit Private Operators to Act.”

Letter from: National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth expressing his opposition to underground parking at Franklin Square. source–“Cultural Landscapes Inventory – Franklin Park – National Mall & Memorial Parks – L’Enfant Plan Reservations,” pg.85 (2005, 2011).

In 1953 District Commissioner Brig. Gen. Louis W. Prentiss discussed the parking issue with the AAA, while considering the matter of government and private participation and provision of parking. In 1954 John L. C. Sullivan revived the proposal again. In 1955 Commissioner Lane revived the proposal. An additional intriguing idea was for downtown businesses to convert their first floors to parking. [17] Planning and plans for underground parking at Farragut Square continued into the 1960s.

Was the idea of a parking structure under Franklin Square so absurd? Parking under parks was more prevalent out west. In 1942 parking was built under San Francisco’s Union Square. Pershing Square in Los Angeles sits atop an underground parking structure built in 1952. In Washington, DC the “Spirit of Justice Park” (completed in 1967) covers two blocks of underground parking south of the Longworth and Rayburn House Office buildings. And development of parking under the Mall is being suggested today. [18]

View of Franklin Square, “Looking Southwest from the Roof of One Franklin Square on the North Side of K Street, NW”; 1992. Historic American Buildings Survey, Engineering Record, Landscapes Survey. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.



Thanks to Kay Fanning, Commission of Fine Arts, for her assistance.


Available by clicking here.

References and Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years. He has presented numerous workshops and public lectures, and published articles and books on Washington D.C. history.

© 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.