Park History

McMillan Historic 1


Community Picnic in McMillan Park

Bloomingdale Civic Association Picnic in McMillan Park – August 1988


McMillan Historic 2


McMillan Historic 3

The McMillan Park Reservoir Sand Filtration Site is a 25-acre Olmsted park bounded by North Capitol Street, NW; Michigan Avenue, NW; First Street, NW and Channing Street, NW. Structures on the site consist of twenty underground sand filtration chambers and two east-west service access courts on which stand rows of sand storage bins, sand washing equipment, and regulator houses. The Sand Filtration Site is part of the larger historic McMillan Park Reservoir, a significant contributing element in the McMillan Plan for Washington, DC. McMillan Park Reservoir is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as the DC registry. The National Capital Planning Commission has designated the McMillan Park Sand Filtration Site as a site for a National Monument or Museum, and the site has been listed four times on the D.C. Preservation League list of most endangered historic places.

History and Significance
McMillan Park was the first water treatment plant in the city—an engineering marvel and an important element in the city’s aqueduct and water supply system. The US Army Corps of Engineers operated the facility from 1905 until 1986 when the Corps built a new water filtration system on the McMillan Reservoir grounds and sold the Sand Filtration Site to the District Government. The slow sand filtration system ensured the quality and purity of the drinking water and reduced the spread of typhoid and other water-borne diseases. Pierre L’Enfant laid down the template for the boulevards, squares, and circles that make the District of Columbia unique among American cities in 1791. But it was the McMillan Plan in 1901 under Michigan Senator James McMillan that brought L’Enfant’s vision to fruition. That Plan was a result of the work of the United States Senate Park Commission, created in 1901 by the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia on the Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia and chaired by Senator McMillan. The Commission included not only Senators and Congressman, but also included many prominent people who had become associated with the City Beautiful Movement, including planner/architect Daniel Burnham, architect Charles McKim, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens. The Commission set out to create a comprehensive plan to preserve park space and provide for the recreation and health of the growing city. The spaces chosen for this purpose were primarily hilltops with extensive views of the city, creating an “Emerald Necklace” of parks along the high points of the city as places to escape urban life while still in town. McMillan Park realized that ideal by combining the new below-ground sand filtration system with the above-ground park and landscape created by Olmsted.

The park grounds, which originally surrounded the reservoir on both sides of First Street, NW, were named after Senator McMillan as a memorial to his crucial work on the McMillan Plan by President Taft after McMillan’s untimely death in 1902. The fountain of the Three Graces which originally stood at the corner of First and Channing Streets, NW, was paid for by the schoolchildren of McMillan’s home state of Michigan. The original fountain’s statue is currently visible just inside the First Street, NW gates of the reservoir facility (but not open to the public). Washingtonians enjoyed McMillan Park, one of the city’s first de facto racially integrated parks, until it was fenced off at the beginning of World War II for security reasons, to protect the city’s water supply from feared enemy sabotage. The fountain was dismantled and most parts of the base were moved to elsewhere in the city, and the stone benches that once adorned the park were removed. The Army Corps of Engineers used the facility until 1986 when it completed a new water filtration facility beside the reservoir grounds. The Corps then offered the old Sand Filtration Site for sale to the District, for one dollar if the District chose to keep the land as a park or for market value ($9.3 million) if the District chose to develop the land. The District chose the latter and has offered several development plans for the site over the years, most of them distasteful to the community for the lack of park space contained in the plans.

2006 – Present
In 2006, the District Government awarded Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) a contract to propose a plan to develop the site while the District remained the developer. The three VMP partners, Trammel Crow, EYA, and Jair Lynch, have proposed construction of rather massive office and residential buildings, many targeted for the Washington Hospital Center, and demolition of 19 of the 20 underground water purification cells, leaving a rather small park. The plan has been sharply criticized by the surrounding community for leaving too little park space (a recent community survey revealed that 85% of nearby residents want any development to include at least 50% of the land as open, contiguous park space), destroying panoramic views, and demolishing too many of the underground caverns rather than creatively re-using them. A professor of Architecture at Catholic University of America has proposed for community consideration an alternate plan that preserves 50% contiguous park and contains a large community recreation center.

The DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) has recently cited many examples of how the proposed VMP plan is unnecessarily destructive of many historical and landscape elements of this extraordinary site. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie has come out solidly backing the proposed VMP plan though Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has urged the HPRB to reject the VMP plan as too destructive of the historic site. As of December 2012, DC Water, working with the Mayor and the DC Council, has made plans to use parts of the site to store storm water and stage the drilling of a sewer tunnel under First Street, NW to avert the catastrophic flooding experienced in Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park in the summer of 2012, throwing the city’s other development plans up in the air.

For additional information on the history of McMillan Park, please review the following 253-page report by Emily Eig of EHT Traceries, Inc.

Also, here’s a copy of the nomination application to add McMillan Park to the DC Preservation League 2012 list of Most Endangered Place:

What can you do to prevent the destruction of this historic site and national treasure?

1. Contact our elected officials and let them know how you feel.

2. Continue to visit this website for updated information, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and get involved!