By Frank Leone
Washington Circle is at the heart of Foggy Bottom/West End and a gateway to our Nation’s Capital. Yet too few people seem to experience the 2.2 acre site. What would you do to make Washington Circle more enjoyable? Some history first.
Washington Circle was included in L’Enfant’s original plan for the city. It was the first circle developed as a park (1856). The circular park offers vistas of the White House area, the Old Post office, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Kennedy Center. It is maintained by the National Park Service with seasonal garden beds.
Congress funded the bronze equestrian statue of George Washington on a large marble base, unveiled on Feb. 22, 1860. The nine foot tall statue was created by Clark Mills (who also sculpted the Andrew Jackson statue in Lafayette Square) and faces the White House. It depicts a calm Major Gen. Washington aboard a frightened stallion leading a successful counter- attack against the British at the Battle of Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777). (Washington was known as fearless in battle, and perhaps the stallion knew that Washington had two horses shot out from under him at the battle of Monongahela.
Prior to it becoming a park, the circle area was part of Georgetown mayor Robert Peter’s plantation, then a cow pasture and the site of a horse-track and cockfights. On at least one occasion in the 1790s, a massive brawl occurred at the site between Irish laborers of Georgetown and those of Foggy Bottom. The area was known as “Round Tops,” perhaps for the octagonal cupolas of houses in the area erected by Isaac Pollack in 1798. By the 1850s, a criminal gang known as the “Round Tops” reputedly inhabited the neighborhood
Buildings surrounding the circle, starting in the 1820s, included the British Legation, St. Anne’s Infant Orphan Asylum, Old St. Paul’s Church, Old GW Hospital, St. Stephen Martyr School, Immaculate Conception Academy, Lewis Hotel Training school, De Francisco Statue Company (featuring an enormous statue of Bacchus with grapes), a big GWU parking lot, and the Washington Circle hotel. During the Civil War, Camp Fry, a Union supply depot and barracks of the (invalid) Veteran Reserve Corps, was located to the south of the circle. The red brick Victorian T.F. Schneider Triangle row houses (b. 1889) remain (between NH Ave., 22nd, K, and L Sts.), as well as row house facades at 23rd and Penn. The circle sits at the northwest corner of George Washington University’s 45 acre campus.
The first tracks for (horse-drawn) street cars were laid during the Civil War. Trolley tracks were removed in the 1950s to make way for rapidly increasing automotive traffic, which still plagues the circle. The circle avoided being sliced in two by Pennsylvania Ave. in 1949, but the K Street underpass was completed in the 1962.
The traffic circle isolates the park and may limit its use, but access would be less of a problem if cars (as well as pedestrians, bikes, and scooters) observed the traffic signals. In 1967, the circle was the site of a joint Catholic-Protestant Palm Sunday celebration, perhaps the first in the nation. In1970, the circle featured music and dance entertainment (sponsored by the FBA, the NPS, the National Folk Festival Association, and the National Council on the Arts).
Bednar, 2006 suggested reimagining the circle as “an ideal public democratic place where neighbors interact with students.” Some have suggested chess tables or a small dog park. The park could be extended beyond the circle by decking more of K Street east and west of the circle. Our urban neighborhood only has a few close-by green spaces and Washington Circle is one of them. When was the last time you sat on its benches to enjoy the green space and nice breeze and why don’t you consider it a destination? If you have comments and suggestions on improvements to the park, let us know (DeniseV@foggybottomassociation.org or FLeoneDC@gmail.com).
Sources: Michael Bednar, L’Enfant’s Legacy: Public Open Spaces in Washington, D.C., Johns Hopkins Univ. Press: 2006; Harold D. Langley, St. Stephen Martyr Church and the Community, 1968; Christian Hines, Early Recollections of Washington City, 1866; Coira Suddayao, “Summer in the Parks Came to Washington Circle,” FB News, Oct. 1970; Historic American Building Survey, HABS DC-688, Washington Circle; Suzanne B. Sherwood, Foggy Bottom 1800-1975, GW Washington Studies No. 7, 1978; “Daring Highway Robbery,” Evening Star, Oct. 3, 1857; Foggy Bottom History Project.