On October 24, 1935, the Washington Evening Star declared, “When all this work is accomplished, the dream of the planners will be realized, a motor highway through Rock Creek Valley—all the way from the Lincoln Memorial to the East-West Highway in Montgomery County, Md.” Writers at the Evening Star, however, failed to mention that the original planners, dating back to 1867, had little notion of what a “motor highway” was or would become. The original purpose for the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway signified something far different from its end result.
Congress authorized the purchase of land for the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway in 1913. After years of chronic funding delays and ongoing title and boundary disputes, the government finished construction in 1936. Under the Reorganization of 1933, administration fell to the recently expanded National Park Service. Today, the two-and-a-half mile road follows the Potomac River from West Potomac Park near the Lincoln Memorial to the mouth of Rock Creek, where it cuts inland and meanders along the bottom of Rock Creek Valley. Once in the valley, the scenic parkway winds under the soaring arches of several monumental, masonry-covered crossing bridges until it reaches a tunnel at the southern boundary of the National Zoo.
The initial design for the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, as envisioned by some of the country’s most prominent landscape architects, came to fruition at the zenith of the City Beautiful Movement. In order to compete with rival cities like New York, Washington needed a grandiose, natural setting like Central Park. Congress answered the city’s call in 1890 with the establishment of Rock Creek Park, but this new urban oasis sat too far north for convenient use by most residents. What Washington now needed was a connector to unify its park system’s disparate parts.
The parkway’s original purpose was to do just this: bring together the city’s two great urban parks through what historian Timothy Davis calls an elongated ribbon of greenery, “spreading the benefits of park development through the urban landscape and enabling excursionists to travel from park to park or from residential areas and civic centers to suburban pleasure grounds without encountering the dangers and disruptions of crowded city streets.”
The Senate Park Commission, known more famously as the McMillan Commission, reported in 1902 that the Rock Creek Valley above Q Street was “very attractive” and shared the “sylvan character” of Rock Creek Park itself, making it the logical site for a parkway. Years later, the Commission of Fine Arts concurred, “No noise suggestive of the city reaches this beautiful valley. The low murmur of the water along the moss covered wall and the overhanging shade all contribute to quiet and restful thoughts – it is truly one of the gems of the future parkway.” The valley below Q Street, however, exhibited a starkly different condition which facilitated a debate on just how the city would create its much-needed connector.
In its same 1902 report, the Senate Park Commission called the lower valley below Q Street “unsightly to the verge of ugliness.” The Washington Board of Trade referred to it as “a noisome and repulsive dumping ground” precipitated largely by adjoining industrial development. Local interest groups, unfairly lumping in the poorer classes of residents who made their homes alongside the valley, created two competing visions for how a parkway could best combat the public health hazard and civic embarrassment of the lower valley.
The Georgetown Citizens’ Association championed a plan to fill in the valley and build a broad, Parisian-esque boulevard over the tunneled-in creek. Washington’s Tiber Creek (like most urban streams of the time) faced a similar fate when it was buried beneath B Street Northwest (today’s Constitution Avenue). Not only would this plan prevent further refuse from entering the stream and create additional taxable land for the city, it would improve access between a languishing, isolated Georgetown and a vibrant downtown Washington.
The Washington Board of Trade, many of whose members had just invested heavily in the city’s northwest suburbs, were not eager to endorse a plan that would aid a competing residential district by providing it with even more convenient access to downtown Washington. The Board of Trade thus supported an “open-valley plan” that sought to keep the valley’s depth intact. Though it would seemingly preserve the verdant landscape, this approach was deceptively artificial. The valley, then a conglomerate of city dumps and industrial use, could only be recreated through extensive excavation. Eventually, both the Senate Park Commission and a 1908 study by the Office of the DC Engineer Commission ruled in favor of the “open-valley plan.”
Proponents cited numerous benefits, such as the drastic reduction of the number of at-grade crossings, a reinforced topography that would shield users from “direct and intimate association with an unattractive part of the city,” and the ability to construct one or two picturesque bridges that would add visual appeal to the parkway. For a city whose urban fabric was decidedly French, dating back to the highly-formalized 1792 L’Enfant Plan, the “open-valley plan” was a distinct victory for the more informal Anglo-American school of landscape architecture.
By the time Congress authorized purchase of land for the “open-valley plan” in 1913, the urban landscape had changed drastically with the introduction and proliferation of society’s newest toy: the automobile. Charles Eliot II, in a 1922 article in Landscape Architecture titled “The Influence of the Automobile on the Design of Park Roads,” stated, “One of the chief delights of automobile travel is speed, and speed is not conducive to the appreciation of scenery.” It was the encouragement of this appreciation, suitable on horseback or in carriage, that landscape architects had originally envisioned for the parkway.
Eliot believed that by broadening the scale of the surrounding environment in order to accommodate for such increased speed, planners could maintain the integrity of the parkway’s original purpose as a scenic pleasure drive. To do so would require a visual rethinking of the experience. He argued that previously “confined views cannot be appreciated from a fast moving vehicle; simplicity and breadth are required.” Views would need to be widened and plantings accentuated “because of the brief time in which [they are] seen….”
Furthermore, the danger introduced by the increased speed of motor traffic, especially when enjoying the outward views of a parkway, demanded more careful planning. “The view ahead of the automobile, down the road,” what Eliot termed the “road vista,” had now “become of greater relative importance” than the periphery. The monumental bridges under which a car would pass would now become bold, forward-oriented visual markers in a much quicker journey through the valley. Only with careful consideration of such recommendations could planners hope to preserve a semblance of the parkway’s original scenic intent with the eventual outcome of the parkway as a major commuter artery.
A 1933 design of the parkway made several revisions, most notably the simplification of the road network, leaving for the most part only one straighter, wider central roadway instead of multiple narrower, winding roads. Formal avenues that were to have flanked the outer sides of the parkway were replaced with additional vegetation to “preserve scenery and seclude motorists from the surrounding cityscape.” By the time of its dedication in 1936, newspapers were hailing the parkway as a triumph for automobile travel.
Beginning in the late 1920s, newspaper reports continually described the parkway as a burgeoning commuter thoroughfare that would speed passage to the northwest suburbs, replacing terms like “park-link” and “pleasure drive” with the likes of “highway” and “traffic artery.” The Evening Star reported in 1935 that the parkway will “afford an uninterrupted passage to the downtown area, or to Virginia, by avoiding the many intersections and traffic congestion that plague motorists on the regular street routes.” The Washington Post echoed the parkway’s original purpose more clearly, reminding readers in a 1935 article that the parkway “will permit a motorist to drive through two famous parks without once leaving their natural grandeur.” With the maximum speed limit set at 22 mph throughout the upper valley, drivers would gain access to “cool and scenic drives for which the Capital is well known.”
As the years progressed, public perception of Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway’s utility shifted northward, perhaps contributing to its more commonly known name, “Rock Creek Parkway.” Commentators described it as the “Highway Link to Chevy Chase,” citing not Rock Creek Park, but the East-West Highway in Montgomery, Maryland as the northern terminus. The southern terminus was often cited at Arlington Memorial Bridge, another major juncture to other road networks in Virginia.
Development along the Potomac waterfront has done much to cloud that portion of the parkway’s original “park-link” intent. Modernistic forms abutting the road such as the Kennedy Center, Watergate Complex, and Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge now dominate the views before entering Rock Creek Valley. The altered landscape has perceivably cut off the unnatural Potomac portion of the parkway from its seemingly more natural extension into the valley, despite it being a wholly man-made construct.
The shift in perception northward, therefore, is a beautiful paradox. The public associates the parkway with that which is natural—the pristine valley—while at the same time reinforcing its utility as a commuter artery by transplanting its termini to major traffic junctures. As the design evolved to accommodate the automobile, not just form but also perception came to follow its increasingly practical function.
Today, the parkway in Rock Creek Valley remains isolated from the surrounding cityscape, enshrouded in a green façade made possible through extensive human engineering. It simultaneously serves as a unique solution to one of the nation’s most byzantine traffic systems. Whether it is ‘naturally artificial’ or ‘artificially natural,’ the parkway has reconciled the original vision to create a natural “park-link” with the newer vision to create an artificial transportation corridor. That public perception today has shifted the parkway northward, away from that which is blatantly artificial, enforces the carefully cultivated planning success that has enabled such a complex reconciliation.
Click here to watch a motorcyclist travel through the parkway!
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Timothy Davis, “Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, Washington, DC: The evolution of a contested urban landscape,” in Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, vol. 19, no. 2 (April-June 1999): 123-237.