JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 1, Article 2 (pp. 03 to 19)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 1, Article 2 (pp. 03 to 19)

CONSTRUCTION HISTORY IN ARCHITECTURAL CONSERVATION: THE EXPOSED AGGREGATE, REINFORCED CONCRETE OF MERIDIAN HILL PARK

LORI AUMENT



2 MERIDIAN HILL PARK


2.1 DESCRIPTION

Meridian Hill Park is located on two city blocks in Washington, D.C., with the long central axis running north-south. The park is bounded on the east by 16th Street, on the west by 15th Street, on the south by W Street, and on the north by Euclid Street (fig. 1). The park area is delimited by perimeter walls with textured panels and heavily rusticated posts. The north end of the park is a level rectangular area planned on axis in the manner of a French formal mall. Two main converging paths lead to the central Grand Terrace. Here, there was once an unobstructed view over the city of Washington. At the Grand Terrace, the topography dramatically drops to the plaza area at the southern end of the park. A series of basins form a cascading water feature, inspired by Italian Renaissance gardens, that leads down the center of the slope, flanked by descending walks on either side (fig. 2). On the lower plaza level, the park opens onto a paved reflecting pool area with a semicircular sitting area to the south, known as an exedra. A low-level balustrade lines the extreme southern end of the park.

All the architectural features and decorative elements found at Meridian Hill Park are executed in concrete. Throughout the park, elements as varied as fountains, benches, the massive retaining wall of the Grand Terrace, paving, planting beds, and urns are all constructed of exposed aggregate, reinforced concrete. These features are remarkable for their exposed aggregate finishes, exhibiting a wide array of aggregate sizes, creating subtle textures and colors while defining crisp corners and turning smooth curves (figs. 34).

Fig. 1. Aerial photo of Meridian Hill Park, ca. 1936. Two converging paths on the north lead to the Grand Terrace at center. From here, cascades lead to the south end of the park. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Museum Resource Center

The concrete work at Meridian Hill Park is currently in remarkably good condition, given that it was constructed during a period when concrete was poorly understood and unsound concrete construction practice was widespread. In most areas, the concrete work suffers only from soiling caused by atmospheric pollution or biological growth and, in a few places, damage from vandalism. Relatively little damage has occurred from the corrosion of the reinforcement, which is more than adequately covered in most places, and there is no sign of active, aggressive chemical attack, such as alkali-silica reaction. However, in some areas, the concrete requires extensive repairs. In the worst areas, the concrete is severely cracked, spalling, or crumbling due to a combination of factors, including corrosion of the reinforcement, freeze-thaw cycling, and physical stresses. Large accumulations of efflorescence have formed at cracks and joints, signaling that a significant amount of water is moving through the concrete, leaching out carbonates and depositing them on the surface, thereby increasing the risk of corrosion of the reinforcement in these locations (fig. 5). Despite the need for restoration and repairs, the concrete work retains much of its structural and aesthetic integrity. Unlike other concrete dating from the same period, the construction history of Meridian Hill Park reveals what was done right, rather than what was done wrong.

Fig. 2. Construction of the Grand Terrace and cascades, view from the south, April 23, 1932. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Museum Resource Center


2.2 HISTORY

In 1901, the McMillan Commission was formed to develop a plan to improve the park system within the District of Columbia. Meridian Hill was marked as a property suitable for a federal park because of its exceptional views over the capital city. Congress approved an act in 1910 to acquire public land to create Meridian Hill Park as part of the recommendations set forth by the McMillan Commission. In April 1913, George Burnap, architect for the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, proposed a design for a formal urban space at Meridian Hill Park. Horace Peaslee became the architect in charge of the park when Burnap resigned in 1917. Burnap's main design concept, consisting of a formal park on French and Italian garden precedents, remained constant throughout the 21 years of construction at the park.1

Fig. 3. Example of current condition of concrete work at the south 16th Street entrance, Meridian Hill Park 1999. Photograph by author

Fig. 4. Example of current condition of concrete work at southwest entrance, Meridian Hill Park 1999. Photograph by author

The scale of the park prohibited the use of costly stone masonry. For this reason, concrete was chosen as the construction material with the hope that it could achieve the warmth and color of the Mediterranean tuff-and-pebble mosaic walls found in Italian gardens. As concrete was still a relatively new material and the park construction was a high-profile federal project, the proper execution of the concrete was a major concern. The newly formed Commission of Fine Arts, which included Cass Gilbert, Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and contemporaries, scrutinized the work at Meridian Hill Park during the design and construction phases. John J. Earley and the Barley Studio were involved with the concrete work at the park from the very beginning. During the preliminary mock-up phase and through the initial phases of construction in 1915–16, Earley experimented with the concrete finishes, dramatically altering the types of finishes and forms that were achieved by 1917–18. After 1918, Earley and his studio were predominantly involved in training local contractors who completed much of the remainder of the work. From 1915 until the park officially opened in 1923, work progressed primarily on the walls and walks of the upper park. From 1923 to 1928, work focused on the completion of the perimeter walls of the lower park. Construction on the cascades, paving, and architectural features of the lower park was completed in the period 1929–36 (Historic American Buildings Survey 1987).

Fig. 5. Current condition of west wall panel. Severe deterioration is not typical of all west wall panels. Meridian Hill Park 1999. Photograph by author


Copyright 2003 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works