Francis Field and the School Field:
A Landscape Plan Proposal for Rock Creek Park?
Posted: November 12, 2019.
The Landscape Committee of the Friends of Francis Field (FFF) is asking its board of directors to approve the committee's request to proceed with an application for a Special Use Permit from the National Park Service to prepare a landscape plan for the improvement and safety of the School Field, an area shown in the photograph in Figure 1 below.
FFF has already submitted a revised master landscape plan for Francis Field to the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. The two field plans would be combined to include a unified landscaping program for the complex that includes a swimming pool, a school, two mowed fields, and related streetscape—although these public facilities are managed by different governments, one federal and one local.
No buildings would be altered and no structures added. Only the landscaping would be designed for improvement. The plan needs to be reviewed the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. FFF shepherded the 2009 master landscape plan for Francis Field through this process in 2009 (see Master Plan 2009 article).
Committee representatives met on this idea with Richard Trogisch, principal of the two Schools Without Walls, on October 29; and with Rock Creek Park staff on November 1. The Committee would like the Board's opinion on going forward with pursuing a Special Use Permit from Rock Creek Park that would allow FFF representatives to proceed with the concept.
The Committee believes this work with Rock Creek Park and the Schools will aid in coordinating the use of both fields for different types of recreation and sports activities, with an emphasis on safe and "green, living open spaces" compatible with the "buffer zones" that these border parks of Rock Creek Park were meant to be. That was the purpose for which the land was purchased from private owners beginning in 1913.
The illustrations and text below are intended to aid in the discussion. The FFF Board of Directors would need to approve the permit application and any partnerships that might develop.
Fig. 1. Boundaries. Shown above is a detail of a 2012 aerial photograph. The portion outlined in red is the proposed area for a landscape architecture plan. It is mainly Squares 13 and 23 of the District of Columbia in the West End neighborhood.
The street at the bottom is M Street NW. The bridge at the lower left crosses Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway into Georgetown at far left.
The majority of the land within the red outline is owned by the National Park Service and is part of Rock Creek Park, the nation's third national park, established in 1890.
Within the defined area there is a K-through-8 school run by the D.C. Public Schools, a swimming pool run by the aquatic division of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), an outdoor basketball court, the so-called "School Field" used for recess recreation, a multi-purpose recreation and athletic field, known as "Francis Field," about half of which is part of Rock Creek Park. The other half of Francis Field is under the management of the D.C. DPR.
Figure 2. The School at 2425 N Street NW.
The public school that currently serves the district where the White House is located is a sturdy and well-built building. This is the school that the children of the U.S. President would attend if their parents wished to send them there. No U.S. president since Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) has sent a child to a D.C. public school.
It is shown at left in Fig. 2, a recent photograph.1 The red-brick and limestone school was opened in 1928 as Francis Junior High School. It now has pre-school as well as elementary school classes through the eighth grade. It is now named the School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens (SWWFS).
The building's architectural integrity has been compromised by several additions, including a gym and cafeteria. Its façade now has air-conditioners protruding from many windows, detracting from its original, dignified appearance.
The proposed project does not change or refine the architecture of the school itself, but of the National Park Service field behind it.
The project would be a landscape architectural plan—a piece of paper—to improve the School Field, as it is known unofficially. Today, it is considered unsafe and inappropriate for use by the school's sports programs. It is, however, used by the school's students for recess recreation.
Figure 3. School Field Looking South toward N Street.
The western part of this field is shown at right. This is a view looking south toward N Street NW. The school building is at the far right of this 2017 photograph.
These border parks also include Rose Park in Georgetown, Francis Field nearby, and several others. They were to be transitional landscaped areas between the urbanization of Washington, D.C., and the natural state being preserved as Rock Creek Park.
The architect of the 1980s-era buildings in the background was the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which chose the brick-and-limestone façades to echo the school's materials and combine a transitional scheme of downtown's grey limestone and Georgetown's red brick for this West End urban renewal look. The nearby Park Hyatt and Weston hotels were also designed by the same firm with the same scheme for their façades.
Figure 4. "A Controlled View of the Parkway"
In 1902, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the eminent landscape architect, recommended to a U.S. Senate committee that the parkway area between Pennsylvania Avenue and Q Street be planned so that park visitors would not see smokestacks, telephone poles, outhouses, the backside of buildings, or unsightly industrial or commercial structures when they looked up at the sides of the parkway that followed the natural creek.
"It is ... a very fortunate opportunity that permits the seclusion of the parkway in a valley, the immediate sides of which can be controlled and can be made to limit the view to a self-contained landscape, which may be beautiful, even though restricted."2
A system of "border parks" including the School Field, Francis Field, and Rose Park, were to serve as buffer areas that made a transition from the natural state of the park to the urbanization of the capital city, Washington, D.C. The aerial photo in Fig. 1 above shows how this plan was carried out, with a tree-lined border between the parkway and urban development.
Figure 5. The Border Parks of Morrow and Markham, 1908
In 1908, architects and engineers had high hopes for this extensive border park, and stated: "the portion of the park between N and P streets, could be developed as the most beautiful urban park in the world."3
This drawing also shows the location of an ornamental bridge at N Street, crossing into Georgetown. Commercial interests eventually defeated this plan. What became the Francis Swimming Pool was intentionally sited at the end of N Street so that no bridge could be built. This was a great disappointment to Olmsted, as was the survival of the plain M Street Bridge, which was no longer needed once the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge was constructed a block to the south.
Figure 6. A Pool and a School: Baist Atlas, 1932
According to the Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Francis Junior High School was dedicated on March 20, 1928, and the "New swimming pool for colored at 25th and N" was opened on July 14, 1928.4
Olmsted wanted streets and "border roads" to be built well back from the parkway, so that new buildings would face the park. This arrangement, he suggested, would enhance "adjacent property values" and that "handsome houses facing the parkway" would serve several functions.5
The school architects ignored this idea, with the result that the school faced the wrong way, and presented its back view to the park, ignoring the natural setting of the peninsular plateau on which it was located.
Figure 7. Aerial photo, Historic American Buildings Survey, 1992
This aerial view shows the setting of the school.
Buildings on the Georgetown side face the parkway, while the school presents a view not of its front façade, but of its parking lot and smokestack.
This photo also shows that the swimming pool was reached by service trucks that had to drive across the field, leaving deep ruts and compaction that still exist.
Figure 8. Sulton Campbell Britt Owens &Associates, architect, Replacement of Francis Swimming Pool and Bathhouse, 1992.
Rendering of a replacement pool to be constructed was presented to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, in October 1972 illustrates the architectural planning for the area at this time, with the pool buildings reflecting the brick striping of the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill buildings along N Street, and turning the corner.
Note also the pedestrianized square park in front of the school building.
Figure 9. The Passonneau Map, 1996
Architect and engineer Joseph R. Passonneau produced the 1996 map shown at left, which includes an image of the swimming pool that was replaced in 1992.6
HIs map shows the effect of Olmsted's landscape plan that created a wide and continuous border park between P Street and M Street at this edge of the original L'Enfant Plan of 1791.
Figure 10. Detail of 1797 Plan of the City of Washington.
The "squares" or blocks of Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 plan were numbered in the following year, on the Andrew Ellicott plan published in 1792 by Thackara & Vallance. The square numbers are still in use.
Squares 23, the location of the School Field; and the location of the White House, which was then marked as the "President's House," are pointed out in red in a detail of an 1797 version of the Ellicott plan at right.
Thus, this location for the proposed landscape plan is part of the area encompassed in L'Enfant's original plan for the Capital City, and is in fact part of its western edge, which used Rock Creek as one of its natural boundaries.
Figure 11. School Field Setting and Architecture.
The site on N Street NW between 25th and 24th Streets NW is shown in the map at left.7
Rock Creek itself is shown in blue.
Access to the field to measure it and draw the plan will require a Special Use Permit from Rock Creek Park. Under federal law, any plan to change or improve this area must be reviewed by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA).
Figure 12. SWWFS, recess recreation, October 29, 2019.
This view looks north, toward Rock Creek, showing the School Field as it is used for outdoor recreation during recess periods.
It would be a minor landscaping job to remove rock and bricks from the field surface and make it more level and safe for elementary school recess play.
Figure 13. Junk or Artifact?
Francis Junior High had a football team for many years that practiced on the School Field.
Shown in the photograph at left is the remains of a five-man blocking sled, used to train offensive linemen in blocking. This has been in the bushes for more than twenty years.
Is it junk to be removed, or is it an archeological artifact of a by-gone age? Another good project in history, preservation, and education? Is it art?
Figure 14. Among the obstacles and obstructions ...
There is a metal plate, perhaps for a drain or valve, in part of the open field area, as shown at left.
Something is under there.
Is this related to a drain, or to something part of the water-moving infrastructure of the old or present swimming pool?
This is only one example of the many educational opportunities that might become school projects for the elementary and high school students at the two Schools Without Walls.
01. Photo credit: Brain Kaptur, Current Newspapers, September 2017.
02. Charles Moore, ed., The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia (Washington, DC: U.S. Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, 1902), p. 86. Hereafter referred to as McMillan Commission Report. [ Internet Archive ]
03. District of Columbia, Board of Commissioners, Report Upon Improvement of Valley of Rock Creek (Washington, DC: United States Senate, 1908), p.27. Hereafter referred to as Morrow and Markham. [ Internet Archive ]
04. "Chronicler's Report for 1928," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 31/32 (1930), p. 372.
05. Timothy Davis, Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway: History and Description (Washington, DC: National Park Service, Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS No. DC-697, 1992), p. 63. [ Library of Congress link ]
06. Joseph R. Passonneau, Washington through the Centuries: A History in Maps and Images (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2004), p. 266.
07. Detail from District of Columbia Geographic Information System, digital imagery: DC GIS Basemap: Ortho2017 WebMercator.
08. Adrienne Coleman, et. al., General Management Plan, Environmental Impact Statment: Rock Creek Park and the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, Washington, DC: National Parks Service, p. 62. [Google Books]