Bryce Park is a cultural landscape in northwest Washington, D.C. The quasi-triangular park is bounded by Wisconsin Avenue on the west, Garfield Street on the south, 36th Place NW on the east, and Massachusetts Avenue NW on the north. The landscape is comprised of Reservation 700, managed by the National Capital Region, Rock Creek Park. The reservation is a small park that covers 0.59 acres.
The land around Bryce Park, including the parcel on which the park was later built, was eventually conveyed to English settlers as part of a 1632 land grant from King Charles I to George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, and then to Calvert’s oldest son, Cecilius, after George Calvert’s death. As the second Lord Baltimore, Calvert named the land Charles County (Riggs 1946/47:250). In 1662, Lord Baltimore awarded the first patent in the region to George Thompson, a clerk of the Charles County Count. Thompson was granted 1800 acres comprising three tracts: Duddington Manor, Duddington Pasture, and New Troy (Downing 1918: 1). These tracts made up the majority of the future city of Washington, D.C., including land where the National Mall, White House, and United States Capitol now stand. Additional patents were granted through the 1670s and 1680s. In 1696, the land around Bryce Park was included within the boundaries of Prince George’s County in Maryland (McNeil 2002/3: 9). The land included the entirety of the future District of Columbia (McNeil 1991: 36).
In 1790, the Residence act authorized President George Washington to select the location for the permanent capital of the United States of America. On January 24, 1791, Washington announced the capital would be built on a ten-mile tract centered at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Washington appointed three commissioners of the District of Columbia—David Stuart of Virginia and Thomas Johnson and Daniel Carroll of Maryland—to survey the city and oversee construction of government buildings. Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker, working under the direction of the D.C. Commissioners, marked out a diamond-shaped area, measuring ten miles on each side, and encompassing territory in Maryland and Virginia, including the forks of the Potomac River and its Eastern Branch, which would eventually be renamed as the Anacostia River. Forty boundary stones, laid at one-mile intervals, established the boundaries based on celestial calculations made by Banneker, a self-taught astronomer of African descent, and one of the few free blacks living in the vicinity (Leach 1997: VIII.7). Maryland and Virginia ceded the area within the 100-square-mile diamond to the federal government. Within the district, the area at the meeting of the Potomac and Eastern Branch rivers was laid out as the City of Washington.
Throughout the early and mid-19th century, the Bryce Park cultural landscape was likely still rural and in agricultural use (or simply dormant), based on the records of subsequent estates within the Pretty Prospects tract. In 1797, Forrest was forced to sell all but 130 acres of his land in Pretty Prospects (Williams 2018: 57). He retained the land that encompassed the Bryce Park site, but subdivided and sold off other portions of his original tract in an effort to prevent financial ruin. He also built a road to connect with the Tennallytown Road (now Wisconsin Avenue), a longtime Native American trail that was increasingly formalized as Washington County developed (McNeil 2002/03: 10-11, 23n). The Tennallytown (alternately known as Tenleytown) Road ran north-south (as it still does today) along the Bryce Park site, but it is unclear where the road that Forrest created was located, or how it may have affected the cultural landscape.
The federal government officially moved from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800. For most of the 19th century, the Bryce Park cultural landscape was not yet part of such a crowded residential area. The first step toward the suburbanization of the area around the Bryce Park site was Hill’s sale of Weston in 1887 to a real estate syndicate comprised of John W. Thompson, A. E. Bateman, and Washington McLean. This syndicate (formed in 1884) was known as the Massachusetts Avenue Heights Syndicate or the Massachusetts Avenue Heights Company, according to contemporary newspaper accounts and various filings (Smith 2010: 149). Together, the investors spent more than 25 years assembling a tract of land in northwest Washington, D.C.—including the Bryce Park site, located at the western edge of the syndicate’s property.
The cultural landscape remained largely undesigned as the Massachusetts Avenue Heights Syndicate amassed its tract, which they intended to subdivide for upscale suburban development, as the population of Washington, D.C. expanded from the urban core in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Eventually, the tract encompassed 138 acres of property, including the triangular parcel of land that would later host Bryce Park (Smith 2010: 149). The Bryce Park site was located at the western edge of the parcel assembled by the syndicate operated by John W. Thompson, A. E. Bateman, and Washington McLean.
At some point between 1910 and 1921, a small shed and gas tank were constructed on the Bryce Park to serve as a filling station for the Penn Oil Company. This filling station remained in place on the site for over three decades, until the National Park Service acquired that portion of the site in 1958. It was associated first with the Penn Oil Company and later with the American Oil Company (also known as AMOCO). Between 1921 and 1933, two islands with fuel pumps (totaling 5 pumps) were installed in front of the station shed (National Photo Company 1921; Heaton and Client Amoco Oil Company 1933).
Increased development in neighborhoods like Brookland, Woodley Park, and Brightwood led to renewed calls to preserve parkland in Washington’s booming suburban neighborhoods (KCI Technologies 1999: B-37). The National Park Service acquired the site in two different purchases that were completed by 1958. In 1962, NPS landscape architect William Belden developed design and construction drawings for the site. Incorporating concrete walkways, steel benches, and fixtures with streamlined profiles, Belden’s designs adopted a Modernist material palette and aesthetic similar to the contemporary facilities being erected under the National Park Service’s Mission 66 program. However, this design assignment arrived rather early in Belden’s career, and as such, there is no record of him being directly involved in the Mission 66 program at a leadership level (Smith 2019). Rather, he was likely adhering to the general Modernist landscape trends of the mid-century era.
In October 1965, shortly before the park was completed, the National Park Service decided to dedicate United States Reservation 700 to the memory of Viscount James Bryce (National Park Service, Reservation 700, Lands Division file). Sir James Bryce was the British Ambassador to the United States from 1907-1913, and he lived in the area around this site during his time in Washington, D.C. Bryce was also a prominent literary figure in late 19th and early 20th-century America, publishing his observations on American life and culture in his 1888 book, The American Commonwealth. During his travels and years of service in the United States, Bryce became good friends with (among others) President Theodore Roosevelt, and like Roosevelt, he was a strong advocate for the conservation of parks and green space in the United States. He praised the beauty of the Rock Creek landscape, and in 1913, a particularly long treatise on “enhancing these beauties” of Washington specifically cited the views of downtown available from the intersection of Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues in northwest Washington, D.C (Harvie 2004, The Washington Herald, September 7, 1913: 8).
As a sign of Viscount James Bryce’s stature and the close relationship of the United States and Great Britain, Princess Margaret and her husband, the Earl of Snowdon, attended the dedication ceremony for Bryce Park on November 17, 1965. The ceremony was a centerpiece of their tour of the United States, which also included events with President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Under Secretary of the Interior, John A. Carver, offered remarks, acknowledging that “we have not preserved much of the view from this level” that Bryce had praised in 1913. Nevertheless, the National Park Service had “belatedly…reclaimed this pleasant site, and [created] the landscape value that Bryce recommended” (Carver 1965).
As part of the Bryce Park ceremony, Princess Margaret unveiled a bronze plaque dedicated to James Bryce. The plaque was affixed to the bluestone retaining wall (and is still in place today). It reads:
VISCOUNT BRYCE OF DECHMONT, O.M.
BRITISH AMBASSADOR TO
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
AUTHOR ● DIPLOMAT ● SCHOLAR
IN THE PARKS OF WASHINGTON
By 1965, the park design was essentially complete and generally consistent with what we see at the site today.
Although it was dedicated as late as 1965, the creation of Bryce Park coincided with a movement—advocated by the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson—to beautify American parks and streetscapes. As a park that had only just been designed and planted, Bryce Park did not fit the same profile as many other small parks within the beautification program. However, Lady Bird Johnson’s advocacy for neighborhood parks such as Bryce Park—and her endorsement for flowering landscapes in particular—likely contributed to the planting improvements that were made soon after Bryce Park’s dedication ceremony.
Historic Maps and Images
Analysis and Evaluation
Bryce Park derives local significance as a neighborhood park constructed to serve the densifying neighborhoods of Northwest Washington in the mid-20th century. It is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A for its association with the creation of small parks in Washington, D.C. The recommended period of significance is 1962-1968, encompassing the initial designs for the park in 1962 and extending to 1968 to include the construction, dedication, and initial beautification improvements of the park.
This Cultural Landscape Inventory finds that Bryce Park retains integrity from its period of significance (1962-1968). Original landscape characteristics and features from the period of significance remain in place at Bryce Park, and the landscape displays all seven aspects that determine integrity, as defined by the National Register of Historic Places.
Landscape characteristics identified for Bryce Park are: land use; topography; spatial organization; circulation; views and vistas; vegetation; and small-scale features.
Land use: Land use refers to the principal activities conducted upon the landscape and how these uses organized, shaped, and formed the land. Historically, the Bryce Park cultural landscape was likely used for agricultural cultivation, and as the area around the site developed, passive woodland and green space. The creation of Bryce Park on the site during the period of significance marked the first formally-planned use of the site for passive recreation, introducing features that made the site suitable for resting on benches, and strolling around or through the park. Its current use as a small park is consistent with its use during the period of significance. Bryce Park cultural landscape retains integrity with respect to land use.
Topography: Topography refers to the three-dimensional configuration of the landscape surface, characterized by features such as slope, articulation, orientation, and elevation. Bryce Park’s site has always been characterized by its steep slope. Its landscape design responds to that topography by incorporating stepped terraces and sloped pathways. The extant topography is consistent with those conditions from the period of significance, and is considered to be one of the cultural landscape’s character-defining features. As such, the landscape’s topography retains integrity.
Spatial Organization: A site’s spatial organization refers to the three-dimensional organization of physical forms and visual associations in the landscape, including articulation of ground, and vertical and overhead planes that define and create spaces. Beginning in the early 20th century, the cultural landscape site was delineated by three perimeter streets (Wisconsin Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, and Garfield Street), which created a triangular parcel. Circa 1956, 36th Place NW was extended through the site, truncating a small portion of the southeast corner of the site and creating the current boundaries of the quasi-triangular park. Prior to the period of significance, the triangular site was generally organized as one—at most, two—tracts; the introduction of a gas station on the northern section of the site circa 1921 marked the first time the site was spatially subdivided. When the park was designed and constructed beginning in 1962, the landscape design reunited the two portions of the site into one cohesive landscape. This design addressed the parcel’s topography by organizing the interior of the site around a series of stepped terraces, linked by staircases and curvilinear paths that link the park’s perimeter streets. This design, and its inherent spatial organization, is consistent with the current conditions of the park. The Bryce Park cultural landscape retains integrity of spatial organization.
Circulation: Circulation is defined by the spaces, features, and applied material finishes that constitute systems of movement in a landscape. For much of its evolution as a cultural landscape, Bryce Park’s circulation features were limited to the streets that bound the quasi-triangular site, as they were platted and eventually paved in the 19th and early 20th centuries for use as vehicular circulation. Within the site, documented circulation features were limited until the early 20th century, when a gas station parking area was created in the northern half of the site circa 1921. The parking area was irregularly enlarged towards Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues over the next few decades; it was not accompanied by any other formal circulation features within the site. When the park was created and initially improved in 1962-1968, the landscape emphasized the circulation features and function of the small park, deploying curvilinear Bluestone and scored concrete paths to frame planting beds and offer pass-through connections between the perimeter streets. These circulation features remain in place, consistent with the period of significance. The Bryce Park cultural landscape retains integrity of circulation.
Views and vistas: Views and vistas are defined as the prospect afforded by a range of vision in the landscape, conferred by the composition of other landscape characteristics and associated features. Historically, the Bryce Park site was known for its views toward Rock Creek and downtown Washington, D.C., to the south and east of the cultural landscape. In 1913, British Ambassador James Bryce (for whom the park is named) gave a speech that specifically highlighted the views from this site toward the Capitol, the Library of Congress and various other agency buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, and to the Potomac River beyond. These views have been lost to intervening development and the growth of vegetation within and beyond the site. However, the site is also characterized by its views toward Washington National Cathedral, north of the site, which was constructed over the course of several decades in the 20th century; the dedication of its tower in 1964 coincided with the construction of Bryce Park during the period of significance, and marked the most significant vista for the small park. This vantage is still available from the cultural landscape, and contributes to its significance as the Bryce Park cultural landscape retains its integrity of views and vistas.
Vegetation: Vegetation features are characterized by the deciduous and evergreen trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers and herbaceous plants, and plant communities, whether indigenous or introduced in the landscape. Although minor alterations have been made to individual plantings since the period of significance, William Belden’s original landscape design and vegetative material palette are still legible today. The cultural landscape retains its overall vegetation composition, as defined by the layout of the planting beds, the selection of tree/shrub species to serve as focal points on each terrace, and the use of saucer magnolia trees (Magnolia soulangeana) to define the perimeter of the walkways/terraces throughout the site. Bryce Park retains integrity with respect to vegetation.
Small-scale features: Small-scale features are the elements that provide detail and diversity, combined with function and aesthetics to a landscape. Historically, documented small-scale features included the hydraulic lifts, gas pump, and other features associated with the gas station that was on the site c. 1921- c. 1963. Extant small-scale features at Bryce Park include the benches, light poles, fencing, retaining wall, and bronze commemorative plaque specified in William Belden’s original landscape design. These features are therefore with the period of significance, and the Bryce Park cultural landscape retains integrity of small-scale features.
The final report will be posted here when it is available from the National Park Service.