The story of Carter Barron and the tennis stadium
If you are wondering why there is a tennis stadium, an amphitheater and ball fields just north of Crestwood in Rock Creek Park, you can blame (or credit) the DC Water Department. While nearly the entire park is preserved in a natural state, this parcel was developed because of a precedent set by a DC Water facility at the end of the nineteenth century.
From 1899 to 1937, the tract was the site of the Brightwood Reservoir (also called the Sixteenth Street Reservoir or Middle Reservoir). This "first major incursion into the park" (as it was described in a 1991 article in the magazine of the Historical Society of Washington DC), then made it possible to consider many other uses for land in that part of the park - even radical ideas like a pro sports stadium or the Jefferson Memorial. Here's the story.
When the DC Water Department proposed building a reservoir on the property in 1897, the US Attorney General declared that such a use of parkland was prohibited under the law that established Rock Creek Park. DC authorities then appealed to Congress. When it became clear to the Park’s Board of Control that lawmakers would authorize construction of a reservoir, the Board gave the Water Department the use of nine acres of parkland in exchange for the city’s purchase of some private land on the eastern boundary of the Park.
Construction of the Brightwood Reservoir commenced May 1, 1899, some 300 yards south of the Brightwood Driving Park harness track. The south basin of the reservoir was in use by the end of June 1900. The north basin was finished in December 1900. The total area of the two basins was 245,000 square feet.
The clearing of the land presented opportunities for recreation at the site. First, a nine-hole golf course was laid out next to the reservoir in 1907, with hopes that additional land could be purchased to expand the course to 18 holes. There were reports that a clubhouse might be constructed near the intersection of Sixteenth Street and Blagden Avenue. The golf course plan fell through for lack of funds. But playing fields, tennis courts and a large picnic area were built adjacent to the reservoir in 1916. The Olmsted master plan for Rock Creek Park in 1918 noted that the site was on a plateau "separated topographically from the rest of the Park, easily accessible from adjacent residential areas and, by car, from other parts of the District…[and] admirably adapted for more or less intensive recreation--tennis basket ball, cricket, football, and band concerts."
The land became the site of community gatherings, especially after 16th Street was extended past the reservoir in 1910. Washingtonians celebrated the Fourth of July in both 1915 and 1916 with a horse show and tournament at Brightwood Reservoir. The Post reports in 1915:
"The grassy slopes about the reservoir at the head of Sixteenth street were crowded long before 2:30, the time for the start of the sports. More than 15,000 persons were present…Every event of the sixteen was of engrossing interest, from the mile-long work-horse parade with which the tournament opened, to the steeplechase at its conclusion."
The 1916 celebration also began with a work-horse parade that assembled on 15th Street south of Pennsylvania Avenue and proceeded to the reservoir for the judging at 2:30. Other events included a horse show, horse races, a mule race and a mounted tug-of-war. Workers in the street cleaning department also participated in a tug-of-war and a greasy pig chase.
Shakespeare was performed in Rock Creek Park decades before the construction of Carter Barron Amphitheater (where a number of seasons of the Shakespeare Free-For-All were to be staged). As the Post reported (5/11/1916): "The tercentenary of Shakespeare was celebrated with pageant on the natural stage south of the Sixteenth street reservoir in Rock Creek park yesterday by students in English literature of McKinley, Business, Central and Western High Schools, with the assistance of the art, music and physical training department and the dramatic associations of several schools.” The performances over three nights included scenes from several plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale.
The Brightwood Driving Park had closed in 1909 because of the extension of 16th Street through the middle of the oval. But the success of the holiday celebrations near the reservoir led to proposals to open a municipal racetrack on the property. The Post reported (10/12/1916):
"The track will be used exclusively for races in the nature of the Fourth of July and Labor Day celebrations. It will be merely a large bridle path fenced in. The track will comprise a half-mile flat track and a steeplechase course…It is expected that work on the project will be begun early this winter and that it will be complete by early spring."
When a new filtration plant at the Dalecarlia Reservoir went on line on October 7, 1927, the Brightwood Reservoir was no longer needed. The Post reported it would "be retained until the new plant is working well." Soon the reservoir stood empty next to the recreation area.
The high ground along the reservoir came in handy on Election Day, 1928, as ballots were counted in the presidential election between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith. Every two minutes, residents could see a pair of 300-million candle power searchlights sweeping the sky, one from the reservoir and the other from the driveway of the District Building. If the lights burned continuously, Smith was leading; if the lights flashed on and off, Hoover was ahead. When a winner was determined, the beams would either stay on or keep flashing. Roy O’Neal also flew a small airplane over DC and the close-in suburbs during the evening, firing red flares to indicate that Hoover was ahead (Smith supporters were looking for green flares). The pilot was not able to signal a Hoover victory because the plane was damaged on landing after his first flight.
During the winter of 1931, the empty reservoir "was filled with water to a depth of a foot or two for the purpose of affording recreation to ice skaters in case of cold weather," as explained in a letter to the Post (2/27/1931). The writer added, "Since the Sixteenth Street Reservoir has steps built for the purpose of descending to the bottom, I think it should be flooded with a foot or so of water in summer for the purpose of providing the kiddies an opportunity to wade and splash around."
The bigger question was: what should be built in place of the unneeded reservoir? In 1929, news reports showed that the Piney Branch Citizens Association was considering a proposal by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission to erect a football stadium with a running track around the field and a swimming pool to one side. By 1931, the Commission was calling for a more general recreation center. At that point, the Sixteenth Street Heights Citizens Association voted to oppose the plan. At a meeting in January 1931, US Marshall Edgar Snyder told the Association that children in the area had sufficient playing facilities in school playgrounds and their own backyards and that "having a lot of children playing in the center of the Sixteenth street residential section would be a nuisance." Snyder suggested the site be converted into a sunken garden.
The reservoir sat unused until December 21, 1937. The front page of the Post the next morning featured a large photo with this caption: "Dynamite yesterday blasted a hole through the obsolete Sixteenth Street Reservoir so that steam shovels could begin razing the plant for an athletic field and playground to be erected there. Photograph was taken just as the high explosives went off." The Works Progress Administration hired some 250 laborers to transform the site into a recreation center. The Post (12/28/1937) reported it would feature 16 tennis courts, a field house, a baseball diamond and fields for football, soccer and lacrosse.
Local opposition continued. In February 1938, Sixteenth Street Highlands Association President W. E. Stoutameyer again raised the proposal for a sunken garden instead. But he added: "Almost anything that would beautify the plot would be acceptable. We do not want the whole area made into tennis courts and swimming pools. It is the main approach into the city from the north and it is important how it looks. Someone suggested putting the Jefferson Memorial there. That, of course would be all right with us." (Construction of the Memorial on the Tidal Basin began in December 1938.)
Finally, it should be noted that the idea of building a stadium at the site of Brightwood Reservoir did not disappear. DC Stadium (later RFK Stadium) opened to the public in October 1961, right after the original Washington Senators had played their first season in Minnesota as the Twins. While still in Washington, the team had weighed in on the site of the facility that would replace Griffith Stadium. A member of the Senators’ Board of Directors, C. Leo DeOrsey, wrote an opinion piece in the Post (1/20/1958) explaining his vote against putting the new stadium at the Armory site:
"They tell you all about the 'plans' for larger highways to this new site, but the way they attend to things in our Nation’s Capital, it may take too long, and by that time, with pay TV, you may not need a stadium. The game may be played in a TV studio. And furthermore, I’m not going to engage in an argument about good or bad neighborhoods. I’m just against the site. My choice for a site would be around the Ellipse, or Hains Point, or Foggy Bottom, or 16th Street Reservoir or the present site with better parking facilities."
So the building of a reservoir set in motion a process that could have brought pro ball to Crestwood.
The Crestwood History Project is sponsored by the Crestwood Citizens Association. A book about the neighborhood's history will be published this fall, to benefit the Association.
--David Swerdloff, Trumbull Terrace