By Frank Leone
In recognition of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, we want to call attention to the little-known Walt Whitman Park, in Foggy Bottom. The one acre park (450 19th St.) is located between the end of the E Street Expressway and Rawlings Park, bounded by the GWU Elliot School and the Teddy Roosevelt Building (Office of Personnel Management). Part of the National Park Service’s National Mall and Parks, the Park consists of a lawn surrounded by a tree buffer and a decommissioned playground. Named for Walt Whitman in 1966, plans for a monumental park were never implemented, but there is a plaque with a Whitman quotation. The Park is a prime site for future memorials.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is one of America’s greatest poets. He lived in Washington D.C. from 1863 to 1873 – including during the Civil War years. Originally from New York, he arrived in Washington in December 1862 after taking care of his younger brother George, a Union officer who had been wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg. Whitman stayed to tend to wounded and ill Union soldiers in the many hospitals Washington hosted during the Civil War. He assisted in a few medical procedures, but he wasn’t a nurse. He provided aid to the soldiers and gave them useful items including biscuits and fruit, occasionally tobacco (he wasn’t a fan), newspapers, and socks. He wrote letters for them, listened to their concerns, acted as a patient advocate, and all too often comforted them while they died.
During his 10 years in Washington, Whitman wrote poetry (including war time poems, published as Drum-Taps) and dispatches to local and New York newspapers. He also worked as a clerk for various federal government agencies. He observed Abraham Lincoln and wrote two memorial poems about the President’s death. During his time in Washington, he made friends who advanced his literary career. He also met and engaged in a long-term relationship with Peter Doyle a former confederate POW and horse-powered street car driver. In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke and stayed in his brother’s care in Camden, N.J. until his death.
Back to the Park -- In the 1930s, the Park (Reservation 715) was part of a green area known as the Little Mall. In 1966, the Interior Department named it for Walt Whitman. As part of Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautification Program in the late 1960’s, landscape architect Edward Durrell Stone, Jr. prepared a design for Walt Whitman Park with rows of trees, walks, pools and Whitman quotations on walls. The plan was approved by D.C. review agencies, but was not a Nixon administration priority and was never constructed.
In 1990, nearby federal agencies created a first of its kind playground at the east end of the Park to provide an outside play area for 140 children in day care centers near the area as well as the public. The playground has since been decommissioned and equipment removed, although there remains an in-ground plaque with an excerpt from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass regarding children and learning. Remaining wooden structures also have inset colorful Crafts Movement style ceramic tiles featuring animals and plants, which are mentioned in Leaves of Grass.
The Park may not remain an open green area for long. It is included in the National Capital Planning Commission’s 2001 Memorials and Museums Master Plan and the 2009 Monumental Core Framework Plan as a potential site for future memorials. The Park was recently considered (and rejected) as a site for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, Desert Storm-Desert Shield Memorial, Global War on Terrorism Memorial, The Republic of Texas Legation Memorial, and most recently the Fallen Journalists Memorial. Nevertheless, the National Capital Planning Commission considers the area prime potential “memorial boulevard space.” The NCPC noted in its April 2023 study that: “Any future memorial in this location should incorporate some form of interpretive resources related to the life and work of Walt Whitman.”
Sources: Garret Peck, Walt Whitman in Washington D.C., History Press: 2015;
Martin G. Murray, “Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals,” Washington History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Fall/Winter, 1996/1997); National Capital Planning Commission, “Fallen Journalists Memorial: Site Selection Study,” April 6, 2023; “Beautification Falls Afoul of the Vietnam War,” Evening Star, Aug. 22, 1967; Robert J. Lewis, “Perplexity Delays Action in Open-Space Buying,” Washington Star, Feb. 12, 1968; Kristan Eddy, “US Builds Play Area for Children in Day Care Centers,” Washington Post, May 24, 1990; FBA History Project.
BONUS: Here's a short video from Kim Roberts, including a reading of Whitman's "By Broad Potomac's Shore."
Summer Break: Funkstown resumes in the Foggy Bottom News in September, 2023. But you can catch up with earlier posts at the FBA History Project Funkstown blog page. If you have ideas for future Funkstown articles, contact me at FLeoneDC@gmail.com.