City parks, regardless of size or scope, are precious treasures. They serve as poignant reminders that nature was here first. Before shimmering glass spires, the Beltway, Instagram, and Uber.
Washington has its own urban oasis in Rock Creek Park. And with all due respect to those justifiably proud New Yorkers, it’s twice the size of their beloved Central Park.
For starters, the Rock Creek Nature Center and Planetarium shows off its space-age computer software to project the eye-popping image of the night sky onto a massive ceiling that stretches across the heavens.
At the Nature Center, visitors can observe and touch live animals, while discovering how they live and what they eat. In the same neighborhood you will find Carnegie Science’s Geophysical Laboratory, where scientists ponder earth and planets, astrobiology, chemistry and physics.
Farther south on Connecticut Avenue, staff and visitors at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park are still grieving the loss in November of their beloved giant panda, Bei Bei. After his first four years of life here, under agreement with Beijing, the 240-pounder jetted off to his permanent home in China. The departure came on the heels of the birth of a pirouette – a baby porcupine.
Along with the zoo, Peirce Mill remains the essence of Rock Creek Park. Hikers, joggers and bikers gather there, claiming it as their personal urban oasis.
During the early 1800s, when the area was part of Maryland, eight mills studded the rural landscape.
While business thrived, things began to slow down in the 1870s. Competition was brewing from nearby cities like Baltimore and Richmond. By 1890, the milling industry as a whole was drifting westward, stationing mills closer to wheat fields.
Eventually, Peirce Mill was condemned. But the tenacious facility held its own, morphing into a teahouse and restaurant. During the Depression, it underwent a restoration, as the waterwheel and machinery were rebuilt. Soon, it began producing flour used in government cafeterias. Following later calamities, the National Park Service and the non-profit Friends of Peirce Mill teamed up to refashion the landscape to its original rural flavor.
Natural paradise notwithstanding, the CIA had a job to do, and Rock Creek Park was the place to do it. So during the height of the Cold War, a band of spies spent their working hours in the attic of an old pigeon coop on the grounds. From this makeshift listening post, they eavesdropped on the activity at the Embassies of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, directly opposite Peirce mill.
Said a former Mill official in an interview with the Washington Post: “We always knew which guys were the CIA guys because they always wore sunglasses indoors, had real sharp creases in their pants, short haircuts and shiny shoes.”
Around the corner from the embassies, visitors pad through sumptuous Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden. Time spent there will reinvigorate any soul – Democrat, Republican or Independent.
The fairy tale-like setting was the one-time home of Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973), the only child of Charles W. Post, founder of the Postum Cereal Company. To say the heiress and socialite was a collector of art would be a gross understatement: the overpowering urge was wired into her DNA. “I collect for the joy if it,” she said. “I came to the realization that the collection should belong to the country.”
The heiress’ inventory focused on Russian and French pieces. It pulsates with rare finds such as the crown Tsarina Alexandra, the last empress of Russia, wore at her wedding. And a chair owned by Marie Antoinette.
Joan Weiss, a volunteer docent, said Post would serve her dinner guests products her family’s company manufactured such as Bird’s Eye green beans – “often in a French sauce” – Maxwell House coffee, and Jello.
Certainly, a household term grafted into the psyches of Central Marylanders is the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. But how did the renowned venue, comfortably nestled in the Baltimore orbit, find its name?
The short answer, offered Ian Kennedy, lies in Post’s deep ties to classical music. The Rouse Company, which developed the planned community, lobbied for the venue to serve as the “permanent summer home” of the National Symphony Orchestra, said Kennedy, who directs the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission. In those nascent days, he continued, Post was a prominent benefactor of a constellation of arts-related organizations such as the NSO, which “controlled the bookings (at the pavilion) and brought in a diverse menu of culture programs.
But the relationship was short-lived. Within two years, the orchestra vacated Merriweather and found a new home at Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts in Northern Virginia. “However, the venue’s name stayed as it has from the beginning,” Kennedy added.
While most of the vast reaches of Rock Creek Park lie within the District of Columbia, its idyllic borders tiptoe into Maryland. Here, around Chevy Chase, the aerobically minded will encounter the gargantuan Washington Temple, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The route along Jones Mill Road also includes the Audubon Naturalist Society, a 24-acre wildlife campus.
On a quiet Saturday afternoon my friend Paul Hildebrand, deep in thought, browsed the gift shop at Hillwood. Surrounded by tomes on Rasputin and the Romanovs, the DC native and interior designer characterized Rock Creek Park as “longer but skinnier than Central Park” in New York City. Washington, he said after some reflection, “is one of the few cities that have a parkway that runs down the center.”