By Frank Leone
They are not as well-known as the Cherry Blossoms at the Tidal Basin, but Foggy Bottom shelters its own pink blooms in Rawlins Park. The under-appreciated park, located in Foggy Bottom’s often overlooked “Northwest Rectangle”, is well worth a visit, particularly in March/April when the fragrant pink Saucer Magnolias are in bloom. The park’s (currently dry) octagonal fountain and two 115-foot long pools reflect the statute of Union General John A. Rawlins (1831–1869).
Rawlins was General Ulysses S. Grant’s Chief of Staff during the Civil War, and Secretary of War during Grant’s presidency. Rawlins was Grant’s close personal friend, most trusted advisor, and right-hand man. The 38-year old Rawlins suffered from tuberculosis for six years, dying five months into Grant’s first term. Grant likely would have benefited from Rawlins’ protection and guidance, perhaps avoiding the scandals that plagued his presidency. Prior to the war, Rawlins had been a lawyer and local politician of unquestioned honesty.
Rawlins Park is located between 18th and 19th Street and the Park splits E Street into North and South routes. The Park space, which became known as “the Little Mall,” was anticipated in Andrew Ellicott’s 1792 plan for the City of Washington (Reservation 13). The Park was not developed until 1872, when Congress designated the land for a statute of General Rawlins, erected in 1875. The park fell into disrepair and the statue was moved to different locations around D.C.
The statue returned in 1931 and park was rededicated in 1936. It is bordered by the old Interior (now General Services Administration) and new Interior Department buildings, and stands over an underground tunnel that physically connects the two buildings.
The bronze 8-foot high Rawlins statue stands on a 12-foot high light grey granite pedestal bearing only the name “Rawlins.” The statue was funded by Congress and made from confederate cannons captured in the Civil War. It was designed by French-American sculptor Joseph A. Bailey, who also designed D.C.’s statue of Territorial Governor Alexander “Boss” Shepherd. It is considered to be one of the better portrait statues in Washington.
The Federal Writers Project Guide to Washington, written during the Depression, described Rawlins Park by noting the presence of the magnolias “resplendent with pastel blossom” in April, government employees sitting on park benches eating their lunches from paper bags, and African American children swimming in the shallow pools. At least the magnolias are still there.
Sources: National Register of Historic Places Nomination, Northwest Rectangle, Dec. 7, 1998; National Register Nomination, Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C., March 1, 1978; The Cultural Landscape Foundation: Rawlins Park; Smithsonian Art Inventories Catalog, General John A. Rawlins (Sculpture); The Federal Writers Project Guide to Washington,1942; Ron Chernow, Grant, 2017; FBA History Project.