East of RFK Stadium, the McMillan Plan never quite got around to extending the axis across the Anacostia, nor did the alignment exactly correspond to the easternmost corner of the ten-mile square, although the 1901 Plan did dredge the upper Anacostia marshes into a well-defined canal as part of an antimalarial campaign. East Capital Street bifurcates around the stadium, jumps the Anacostia and tails away, similarly ignoring the lay of the ground, riding up and over a topography of old ravines tamed by the requirements of a weakening axis, a final long hill that was for years breasted by the notorious housing block East Capitol Dwellings (where Marvin Gaye grew up) just behind the crest that must have had spectacular views from its broken windows. The new low-density HOPE VI financed replacement housing, Capitol Gateway Estates, look like little more than a Potemkin Village of some image of middle-class suburban ideal.
The easternmost corner of the District is marked by a surveyor’s stone dated 1792 in another trashy weed lot of breeding poison ivy a few blocks off the misaligned intersection of East Capital Street with Southern Avenue. Neighborhood kids must regard the little monument as a useless relic in a dumping area or a stone that fell from the sky or a vaguely religious site long forgotten. The boundary stone in ancient Roman culture did have religious significance and all the associated ceremony. Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker, of myth, the act unrecorded, must have found themselves in a trackless land grant. Working the angles divined by Congress, they must have set the heavy, ungainly boundary stones from a wagon. The interpretations were made elsewhere, the spot unrecognizable and now as lost as it was then.
The perpendicular cuts through the woods point exactly northwest and southeast. This lower section of Eastern Avenue looking back to the Anacostia has same disregard for topography, bounded by modest homes on either side, nearly unchanged since they were built half a century ago, those types of homes with successive permitless additions, an empty thoroughfare having forgotten its reason long ago.
The hill bottoms out in an industrial section, but before having to deal with the Anacostia and the bother and expense of a bridge. Kenilworth Avenue conveniently provides an excuse to sever this section of Eastern Avenue from its extension on the other side of the Anacostia where it bifurcates Takoma Park. The marshland below extends to the banks of the river. Once owned by a maimed Civil War veteran, W. B. Shaw, employed for a time at the Pension Building, he fell into the business of cultivating water lilies on his near worthless marshland. His descendents resisted the efforts of the McMillan Plan to dredge the marsh and seem to have extracted, as an agreement, the conversion of the property into two parklands. One, is Kenilworth Park (700 acres), the other the rarely-visited Aquatic Gardens (14 acres). Both of these departmental properties of the National Park Service are down-listed into the status of an unfunded mandate and cut adrift for “volunteer” maintenance.
At the Aquatic Gardens any hierarchy among the buildings that might indicate the original Shaw family house is lost, and the diminutive information center, classic brown “National Park” is open but empty. Desiccated exhibits of native plants , populate a narrative of marsh restoration, the undoing of a turn-of-the-century McMillan Plan anti-malarial campaign. Obediently walking the designated path, bush-hogged to keep the weeds down, the designated markers and information plaques have been vandalized by local fauna. The first view is of a swath of splintered trunks, broken half-way up, entire canopies thrown down and reduced to tangles of grown-over branches at ground level which open great holes to the sky. At the end of the path you can see one of the efforts of marsh restoration was to punch holes in the stone walls that were constructed to constrict the waters to a canal-like perfection. The resulting mud flats now attract birds and theoretically should filter the oily run-off from suburban Maryland parking lots, and cleanse the notoriously fetid backwater.
MY LORD’S ISLAND
Now, run down the axis by lining up the center line of RFK Stadium, the Capital, and the Lincoln Memorial (the stele of the Washington Monument is slightly off set), and see where you end up on the other western extreme: a couple of immature trees on the banks of the Virginia side of the Potomac below the tip of Roosevelt Island, near Arlington Cemetery, at the 17 milepost of the Mt. Vernon Bike trail, and within hearing of the Roosevelt 66/50 Bridge: The edge of suburban Virginia.
The high buildings of Roslyn, Virginia just to the north affront the dignified background view of the Lincoln Memorial such that 25 years ago an informal agreement mediated by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts limited the height of the buildings. Today the agreement seems undone with immanent development of even higher structures. A new Memorandum of Understanding has been written to give an appearance of a negotiated agreement between equals but it is little more than a grudging acknowledgement of economic realities. Height limitations in the District force developmental pressure upward exactly at the jurisdictional borders. Roslyn occupies the closest and most valuable nestle of unregulated ground where the views are a sought after commodity.
The view from this spot is delightful. It embraces the picturesque banks of the Potomac, a portion of the city, and an expanse of water, of which the bridge terminates the view. Numerous vessels ply backwards and forwards to animate the scene. Directing the eye over a corner of the garden, we perceive the sails only, as if by enchantment, gliding through the trees.
— David Baillie Warden, A Chronological and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia, Paris, 1816, pp. 137138
I could not find the spot on the island ridge where the ruins of the summerhouse should have been. Photographs shot in the 1930’s reveal an almost Mayan-like ruin, grown-over in roots and jungle. Summer home of General John Mason, the 90 acre island was owned by the Mason family for generations. Earliest records refer to the island as “My Lord’s Island” and then , after 1680 as “Barbadoes” After 1717, when the Mason family acquired the property, the island was commonly referred to as “Mason’s Island” John Mason renamed it “Analostan Island” and built the house and gardens during the 1790’s. A prominent social life developed on the island, which was now cultivated in orchards and “had an able English gardener in charge of the estate for many years”. In 1798, Louis Phillipe, Duc d’Orleans, who would be the last king of France, politely wrote of his visit that “he had never seen a more elegant entertainment”. In 1805 a causeway was built from the south shore in response to the silting up of the Georgetown harbor on the opposite bank. The thought was that by forcing the flow of the Potomac into a more restricted channel, the river would naturally scour a channel for ships. Instead a stagnant backwater developed behind the causeway that diminished the summer pleasure of the island (with clouds of mosquitoes no doubt). By 1833 financial problems forced Mason to sell the island and for the next century it suffered a succession of owners, commercial cultivation, dance halls, and gradual abandonment.
In 1931 the Roosevelt Memorial Association bought the property and commissioned what is today widely regarded as a dreadful monument to our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Completed in 1967, and genuinely not worth the wait, it is another one of those scarcely visited National Parks. The circular space of the monument actually occupies a relatively small portion of the island, where a stiff sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt, one hand raised in heroic style, the other beckoning, recalls simultaneously a recently deposed Middle Eastern dictator and a gesture of bribery, except that he appears to be orating harmlessly at the trees. The raised gesture should have been recognized by 1967. Four monumental stone tablets similarly orate strenuously on NATURE, MANHOOD, YOUTH, and THE STATE to the trees. That Frederick law Olmstead, Jr. was the landscape architect suggests either a very insignificant project or one that has been allowed to disappear into the weeds. The unforgivable intellectual laziness that allowed the rest of the park to return to a state-of-nature is insufficient cover for simple neglect. The sad proof is here, inadequate funding, and the political reality that, without a vote, the District is always last on the list. While there is some charm in walking the pathways, the constant wall of white noise from the Roosevelt 66/50 bridge on one side and the George Washington Parkway on the other, tends to render the effort to distinguish birdsong a quaint endeavor, not to mention the thunder of incoming planes banking down that twisted trajectory into National Airport and the Doppler menace of military helicopters ranging through their tight flight paths just above the branches.