By Frank Leone
Franklin Square Park is not in Foggy Bottom. But it is the area where I spent most of my 35 year working life and it was the subject of a recent Presentation to my old law firm. So I learned some interesting things, I am sharing them.
Franklin Square (according to D.C.) or Franklin Park (according to the NPS) started out as just another rectangle on L’Enfant’s map (Square 249). But it had something special – a spring within a few blocks from the White House that could provide drinking water. In 1819, the federal government first piped the water though wooden pipes to the White House, and then installed metal pipes. By 1832, the U.S. purchased the square – the only one in the city purchased to protect a water source. The spring provided water to the White House from Andrew Jackson to William McKinley. The spring was abandoned during the war of 1898, due to concerns that Spanish agents might poison it. Since 1873, a fountain has marked the location of the spring in the Park.
In the 1790s, the area including the Park was part of “Port Royal,” owned by Samuel and John Davidson. The Park has been known as “Franklin” Square since the 1830s, although no one knows why. It was originally called “Fountain Square,” perhaps miscopied to “Franklin Square.” During the Civil War, the square housed the 12th New York State Militia. Walt Whitman, who lived on L Street north of the square, reported Abraham Lincoln passing by to visit Secretary of War Edward Staunton (who lived on K St. bordering the square) on his way to Lincoln’s summer cottage.
After the Civil War, Franklin Square became an upscale residential neighborhood, with residents including then Congressman James Garfield and Senator John Sherman. In 1869, the City opened award-winning Franklin School. It was designed by German-American architect Adolf Cluss in the Rundbogenstil (“round-arched style”). (Cluss also designed, inter alia, the Sumner (African American) school and Eastern Market) The building served primarily as a (white) elementary school until 1925. It housed the D.C. Superintendent of Education from the beginning, became administrative offices from 1925-1968. It passed through other uses, including as a homeless shelter in the early 2000s before it was refurbished. It now hosts the Planet Word museum.
Franklin Square also features three other Historic Buildings. The Almas Temple, a Masonic (Shriner) facility was built by a member Allen H. Potts, in 1929. In 1987-1990, its impressive tile façade was moved 100 feet west to make room for the towers at One Franklin Square. The Hamilton Hotel was named for the daughter of Alexander Hamilton, who was a friend of the hotel’s owner. That hotel was replaced by the current building in 1922. The new Hamilton hosted labor offices, residences, and meetings and AFofL President WilliamGreen was a long-time resident. Across 14th Street is the Tower Building, D.C.’s first Art Deco (with stripped classical influences) office building and D.C.’s tallest building at the time of its1929 construction.
Franklin square boasts an impressive 8 foot bronze statue on an equally high marble base, but it’s not Benjamin Franklin. The statute is of Commodore John Barry, a “founder of the American Navy” who served with distinction in the Revolutionary War. Barry, born in Ireland, had jumped ship in Philadelphia when he was 15. The erection of the statue was supported by Irish-American groups, who celebrated its installation in 1914.
The original fountain in square was replaced during a New Deal renovation in 1936. But the park area deteriorated over time. By 1970, the area was known for burlesque houses and prostitution. It underwent a reformation in the 1980s, however, with construction of new office buildings. Most notable is the two towers of One Franklin Square, which now house the Washington Post.
The Park itself recently underwent a major renovation, completed in 2021. The fountain was repaired and a playground installed, with the accompanying removal of at least 65 trees. The Park currently has a café, which is yet to open, and a not-yet functioning water spray area. But with office buildings in the vicinity potentially converting to residential Franklin Square Park could enjoy another new life.
Sources: George J. Olszewski, Franklin Park Washington, D.C., Office Of History and Historic Architecture, NPS Eastern Service Center, March 1970; Franklin Park, National Park Service Cultural Landscapes Inventory, 2005, revised 2011; Franklin Park Vision and Transformation Plan, Environmental Assessment, National Park Service, Dec. 2014; Franklin Park, AIA DC 2023 Design Award submission; Documentary History of American Water-works; Benjamin Franklin School, DC Preservation League, Historic Sites; Hamilton Hotel, DC Preservation League, Historic Sites; Commodore John Barry, U.S.History.org; Jerry Knight, Franklin Square Developers Wrestle Porno-Row Image, Wash. Post, Oct. 3, 1983; Claudia and George Kousoulas, Contemporary Architecture, Washington, D.C. (John Wiley: 1995); Foggy Bottom History Project.