Meridian Hill Park

Washington DC, District of Columbia (DC)

Should we still be referring to this public space as Meridian Hill Park?

Meridian Hill Park 2
- Mr.TinMD

Exploring Meridian Hill Park

Established between 1912 and 1940, Meridian Hill Park, is a 12-acre Italian-inspired garden at the intersection of Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights, just 1.5 miles north of the White House, in Washington, D.C. Originally named for its meridian line, the park's name has actually become something of a debate.

Once the residence of a President, it later served as a Civil War camp for Union troops before evolving into the stunning grassland we see today. Complete with a magnificent 13-basin cascading fountain, the longest of its kind in North America, the park also has additional attractions and statues.

Accessing Meridian Hill Park is as simple as journeying south along 16th Street, where it unfolds just above U Street. A designated National Historic Landmark as of 1994, the park offers an escape from the city and perhaps even the chance to witness the Sunday drum circle, a park tradition since the 1960s.

Meridian Hill Park 5
- Joe Flood

The History of Meridian Hill Park

Meridian Hill Park's origins trace back to the early 1800s, rooted in the proposal to establish a meridian or longitudinal base point through the midpoint of the White House. In 1819, the site became the location for a mansion built by John Porter. It was aptly named "Meridian Hill" due to its alignment with the proposed meridian. John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States, resided in this mansion after leaving the White House in 1829.

During the Civil War, the estate became a Union encampment under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts Union Army Regiment. After various transformations, including a fire that damaged the mansion, the land was subdivided into smaller lots in 1867.

Meridian Hill Park 1
- Justin Schuck

Creating Meridian Hill Park

In the early 20th century, efforts to transform the rugged landscape into a formal park led by Mary Foote Henderson, gained traction. Landscape architect George Burnap designed the initial plans in 1914, drawing inspiration from ]the villa landscapes of Renaissance Italy, with later modifications by Horace Peaslee. When the park was unveiled in 1936, under the stewardship of the National Park Service, it was a masterpiece of Beaux Arts design.

Divided into two sections, the park's lower area has dramatic symmetrical stairways, textured-concrete benches, and a reflective pool, while the upper portion offers an open mall, wooded areas, and a panoramic terrace overlooking the lower park. The park’s central feature, the 13-basin Cascading Waterfall, has a recirculating water system that supplies water to two large circular fountains on the upper level and cascades down to the lower garden.

Meridian Hill Park 4
- Rudi Riet

Renaming Meridian Hill Park as Malcolm X Park

The National Park Service designates the park as Meridian Hill Park, yet many locals and activists call it Malcolm X Park. But why?

When Mary Foote Henderson pursued her vision for an Italian Renaissance-style park, the predominantly African American community residing in the area were displaced. By the 1960s, the site had become a hotbed for black activism, drawing figures like Angela Davis and the desire to honour Malcolm X there.

Despite a failed congressional attempt in 1970 to rename it officially, the grassroots effort solidified the park's colloquial identity as Malcolm X Park, referencing its place in civil rights history. This naming reflected a desire to reclaim space and assert black ownership in the face of systemic marginalisation.

Meridian Hill Park 6
- Joe Flood

Unfortunately, in the early 2000s, affluent residents began occupying the park’s neighbourhood, coinciding with the displacement of long-standing black communities. These newer residents predominantly referred to the park as Meridian Hill.

Modern discourse around the park's name shows differing opinions. While some, like D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, advocate for a combined approach acknowledging both names, others, like longtime attendee Cyril "Butch" Jackson, adamantly campaign for the name Malcolm X Park, in honour of the civil rights leader.

Meridian Hill Park
- Ted Eytan

Exploring Art at Meridian Hill Park

Meridian Hill Park is adorned with a collection of finely-crafted sculptures and memorials.. Among these are the following:

  • "Serenity": a marble sculpture by Jose Clara, dedicated to the U.S. Navy commander William Henry Scheutze.
  • "Joan of Arc": the only equestrian statue of a woman in Washington, D.C., gifted by the Ladies of France in Exile.
  • "Dante": a bronze sculpture by Ettore Ximenes, installed in 1922. It depicts the Italian poet in scholarly dress.
  • The "James Buchanan Memorial": in honour of the 15th president of the United States, sculpted by Hans Schuler and dedicated in 1930.
  • Adjacent to Meridian Hill Park lies the Watermelon House, a whimsical sight covered in fruit murals.

Despite facing challenges such as vandalism and the disappearance of the Noyes Armillary Sphere, efforts are underway to preserve and restore Meridian Hill Park’s historical treasures. The National Park Service remains committed to safeguarding its cultural heritage for future generations to appreciate.

Meridian Hill Park 3
- Mr.TinMD

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