As part of back-to-school season, we’re featuring several impressive young preservationists who are saving places all around the country. This is the third profile in the series.
For more than two decades, the city of Washington, DC, and the residents of Bloomingdale, Park View, and other neighborhoods surrounding McMillan Park in the city’s northwest quadrant haven’t been able to agree on what to do with the 25-acre site. Now, four students from nearby Catholic University of America have worked with their professor and the community to develop a plan of their own, with a little preservation mixed in.
“The feeling I’ve gotten is the city has just been focused on development, development, development, and a lot of people have felt they haven’t really listened to what the community wants and the historic value of the site,” Peter Miles, a senior architecture student and project member, says. “The project was a way for the community to develop a plan to say, ‘Look, we have answers. We’re not just saying ‘no’ to what the city wants. This is our vision.’”
Though it was designated as a permanent community green space when it was built in 1905, the site’s principle function was as a filtration plant that purified water by passing it from above-ground silos through a layer of sand and into subterranean vaults via gravity. The plant, named after Senator James McMillan of Michigan who worked to realize plans for the city in the late 1800s, helped to eradicate typhoid outbreaks in the District and included a walking path designed by the father of American landscape architecture’s son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.
When a new purification process was developed for the District’s water supply in the late 1980s, the site was sold by the federal government to the city and has been deteriorating and closed to the public ever since.
Miles and classmates Joseph Barrick, Filipe Pereira, and Nina Tatic were asked to help with the project last spring by their professor Miriam Gusevich, who had been working with the community on the project for roughly ten years. Since then, they have collectively logged hundreds of hours in nearly every area of the project from computerized 3-D modeling to attending a hearing by the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board.
The team’s plan keeps many of the same elements in place that are supported by the city, but with one key difference: They’ve designated the middle portion -- a full 50 percent of the plot -- to public use. Much of the remaining subterranean vault would be used as a community center with basketball and tennis courts and a swimming pool. The roof would serve as the park’s open green space, and several of the filtration cells would be restored and incorporated into the design as fountains and to demonstrate to the public how water filtration was practiced in the past.
“It’s really just a shame to try and tear it down and build something new because you don’t have the time and the money and effort to preserve part of it,” says Miles. “There’s a certain sense of a special place there and it’s really a phenomenal thing to be able to experience.”
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David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.