Thursday, November 29, 2012

An Italian Garden in Washington, DC

By Patricia Winton

Meridian Hill Park Fountain
For the last ten years I lived in Washington, DC, Meridian Hill Park stretched below my window. The park has a fascinating history. It stands on the point where higher terrains reach sea level. Plans to build the park emerged at the turn of the 20th century, led by Mary Foote Henderson, wife of a senator from Missouri. The park’s name comes from a plan, supported by Thomas Jefferson, to have the official prime meridian (now in Greenwich, England) run from the top of Meridian Hill.

Meridian Hill’s vista is the inspiration for Washington’s building height restrictions. Mrs. Henderson also put her finger in this pie. The construction of the Cairo apartment building on Q Street NW, an 11-story building, put Meridian Hill’s view at risk if other tall buildings rose along side the Cairo.

The park is divided into two levels. The upper level is a flat expanse with a broad field surrounded by trees providing space for picnics and impromptu soccer games. At the end of this expanse is a terrace overlooking the lower level and providing a breathtaking view of the city with the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol spread out below. It’s also a great place to watch 4th of July fireworks.

It’s a favorite neighborhood hangout. From my eighth floor apartment, I watched a man carry a toy sailboat under his arm every Sunday. He would place the boat in the reflecting pool on the park’s lower level and sail it among the lily pads via remote control. Many mornings I watched a person—I never was sure if it was a man or a woman—dressed in black. S/he would perform graceful tai chi moves in the early morning light while I looked down from my perch above.

Joan of Arc Statue
The smaller lower level features a large reflecting pool with a couple of water spouts sending streams of water about ten feet into the air. The two levels are joined by a cascading waterfall comprising thirteen semi-circular basins. The thirteen represent the original American colonies. This waterfall is clasped between a pair of curving stairways. I once watched a man put a group of six-month-old puppies in the upper basin and walk down the stairs alongside as the pups frolicked in water, floating over each vessel into the next. I don’t know who had more fun, the man or the dogs. I certainly had fun watching them.

A number of statues grace the park. My favorites are Dante, who stands near the upper end of the right stairway. The other is Joan of Arc, the only female equestrian among Washington’s many statues of men on horseback. She sits on her horse in the plaza on the upper level, looking out over Washington.

Fountain in Rome's Botanic Gardens
The park has not been without controversy. Following the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it became a meeting place for people most affected by the violence. A movement to rename the park for Malcolm X emerged but that idea was never officially adopted. Gradually, the park fell into decline, a haven for drug buyers and strung-out users.

But the neighborhood citizenry reclaimed the park, establishing Friends of Meridian Hill in 1990, which worked to restore the gardens and evict the druggers.

Their work was so successful that President Clinton gave his 1994 Earth Day remarks from the upper plaza overlooking the city. Today, it’s a place for families and kids and lovers. It reminds me of an Italian piazza where neighbors gather.

The garden’s magnificent cascading waterway is based on a waterfall in Rome’s 700-year-old Orto Botanico. If I ever find myself homesick for my old Washington home, I can visit the waterfall at the botanic gardens where I can enjoy its mist.

I blog on alternate weeks at Italian Intrigues.


  1. Patricia,

    What a nice story of neighborhood triumph and a lovely park. I'm glad to know of the park's history. How amazingly similar the fountain is to the Italian one.


  2. Maggie, thanks for commenting. I'm reading "In for a Penny" at the moment!

  3. I'm glad to know the park has been put to rights. The last time I was there, we gathered in the park and marched down the hill to the White House to persuade President Bush not to declare war on Iraq. It was an invigorating walk. At the end of it a number of women writers were arrested, Maxine Hong Kingston among them.

  4. That walk to the White House is about a mile, and no hills. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.

  5. After the Pansy Garden near the Jefferson Memorial, Meridian Hill Park was my second choice as the loveliest in DC. Thanks for the history of the park.

  6. Lenny, I don't know the Pansy Garden. I'll have to look for it the next time I'm in D.C.

  7. Patricia, what an interesting history of a public place. Imagine all the people who have visited the park without ever knowing the details. Thanks!

    1. Beth, I don't know why I didn't see this in December. Thanks for your comment. The park(s) still remain my favorite(s).