Public history and public activism at work: Washington’s McMillan Sand Filtration Site

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04July-TweetOn July 4, about 60 people attended a party thrown by Washington, DC activists trying to save a historic water filtration plant. The event was held in a row house in the city’s gentrifying Bloomingdale neighborhood, which I wrote about in a recent History@Work post. That post garnered me an invitation to the July gathering, which included barbecue brisket and pork with heaping sides of educational literature and conversations about the history of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site and the District of Columbia’s plans to redevelop the property, which is listed in the National Register. The party ended with a trek to the nearby McMillan site and an unauthorized tour, part of the advocates’ strategy to grow their numbers and expose wider groups of people to the site.

Completed in 1905, the McMillan Sand Filtration Site is a 25-acre portion of the 92-acre McMillan Reservoir. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the water filtration and storage facility to supplement the District of Columbia’s aging drinking water distribution system. The site includes a 38-acre, 100-million-gallon reservoir, pumping station, and the sand filtration facility where water was mechanically cleaned prior to being distributed to the expanding capital city.

The McMillan property was conceived as an industrial site that would appeal to the city’s residents as a recreational area. Noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was hired to design the facility’s grounds, which included a substantial network of paths, trees, a fountain, and views of the city’s monuments. Until the grounds were closed in 1942, it was a heavily used public space.

Twenty cylindrical concrete sand bins are the most visible element inside the McMillan Sand Filtration Site. Photo credit: David Rotenstein.

Twenty cylindrical concrete sand bins are the most visible element inside the McMillan Sand Filtration Site. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

Despite its value to the community, the sand filtration site remained closed for decades behind a chain-link fence. The facility’s 20 cylindrical concrete sand storage bins were a highly visible part of the North Capitol Street corridor that linked the federal city to its suburbs.

Local historians and park preservation advocates frequently cite interviews with longtime African American residents who believe that restricting access to, and eventually  closing, the reservoir park reflected whites’ efforts to retain racialized spaces in the city. These restrictions included the closure of entrances from parts of the neighborhood where  African Americans were beginning to live prior to World War II to the erection of a fence during the war, which officials claimed was necessary for security but was never taken down. Several residents underscored this belief at the May 2016 neighborhood program on gentrification and history that was the subject of my earlier post.

During the water facility’s first four decades, Washington’s neighborhoods expanded beyond the eighteenth-century core area conceived by Pierre L’Enfant. Former country estates and farms that had been converted into residential subdivisions in the last decades of the nineteenth century were urbanizing. Washington was a rigidly segregated city where racially restrictive covenants were attached to deeds. These prevented African Americans from moving into subdivisions. As African Americans began penetrating the exclusionary residential barrier, whites responded with litigation and retrenchment. Bloomingdale and the adjacent reservoir became part of the fight. The Mary and James Hurd house (Hurd v. Hodge, one of the cases folded into Shelley v. Kraemer which I wrote about in my earlier post) is located at 116 Bryant Street NW, across the street from the McMillan Reservoir property.

Activists gather outside McMillan Sand Filtration Site fence before entering at dusk on July 4, 2016. Photo credit: David Rotenstein.

Activists gather outside McMillan Sand Filtration Site fence on July 4, 2016. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

In 1986, a new chemical filtration system was completed and the sand filtration part of the site was decommissioned and abandoned. The following year, the DC government paid $9.3 million to the federal government for the site. The transaction included covenants binding the District of Columbia to evaluate the property for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. If the analysis found that the property met the Criteria for Evaluation, then the District was bound to pursue National Register listing and to ensure that all changes at the property comport to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. It was not until 2012, however, that the DC Historic Preservation Office completed a National Register of Historic Places form and the McMillan property was listed in the National Register the following year. It also became a designated DC landmark subject to regulatory review by the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB).

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, housing and commercial real estate conditions were favorable for the District to move forward with transferring the sand filtration site to the private sector for redevelopment. In 2007, District officials selected a development team called Vision McMillan Partners (VMP). The team included seven Washington firms with commercial and residential projects throughout the city and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

As the redevelopment plans were taking shape, Washington officials were busy fulfilling their obligations to evaluate the property’s historical significance and to ensure preservation. Preliminary plans submitted for regulatory review before the DC HPRB and DC Zoning Commission included substantial alterations to the site, including demolition of buildings and subsurface water filtration cells, and the construction of multiple highrise buildings. Historic preservation and open space advocates protested, alleging that the plans were not consistent with the 1987 deed covenants and with federal and District historic preservation laws.

Over the past decade, Washington has experienced a real estate and population boom. The McMillan project, some advocates feel, is part of a larger citywide policy to shift formerly public lands into private hands. Chris Otten, another coalition organizer who led the July 4 excursion into the site, said “McMillan is happening everywhere. Government is taking away our parklands.” Organizer Daniel Wolkoff later expanded on Otten’s comment: “The City is stealing the site for the developers. Not the city; we’re the city. The City government is stealing this public land and the billions of dollars for the developers.” Bloomingdale residents and others, however, see an opportunity to return the fallow filtration site to public use.

The Save McMillan party was held inside a historic Bloomingdale rowhouse. It is one of many in the neighborhood with the distinctive yellow signs produced by the preservation advocates. Photo credit: David Rotenstein.

The Save McMillan party was held inside a historic Bloomingdale rowhouse. It is one of many in the neighborhood with the distinctive yellow signs produced by the preservation advocates. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

Lawsuits have been filed and protest efforts have cropped up in Bloomingdale and online. Yellow “Save McMillan” yard signs are scattered throughout the neighborhood and several coalitions, including Friends of McMillan Park and the Save McMillan Park Action Coalition. Through targeting city officials and the press via Twitter and direct action events, coalition leaders believe their efforts offer residents opportunities to “retake” their park.

The McMillan case is playing out in a space with a long history of racial and class exclusion. The contest over what should be preserved there and how to do it reflects the difficulty public historians and historic preservationists have in connecting events recounted in published histories with current events unfolding around them. The conflict exposes significant issues for public historians. Foremost among them involves re-purposing historic preservation documents prepared by the District, developers, and activists as evidence used to defend often competing visions of the past and the future. And, for scholars and practitioners who also identify ourselves as activists, it shows how twenty-first century networking and messaging technologies are being adapted to old-school organizing and messaging tactics.

~ David Rotenstein is a consulting historian based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He researches and writes on historic preservation, industrial history, and gentrification.

A note about this post: McMillan preservation advocates reached out to me after my article on Bloomingdale was published on History@Work. They invited me to the party and agreed to let me document the event, including the unauthorized entry to, and tour of, the McMillan Sand Filtration Site. Participants shared photographs and posts from the tour on social media platforms, including Twitter. The information and images in this post come from participants who agreed to the documentation and from public social media posts.

  1. Adina Langer says:

    This post raises some fascinating questions about the role of civil disobedience in public history and preservation activism. When do you think this tactic is best used?

  2. Paul Cerruti says:

    Thank you David for this great article and for helping to raise public awareness. I would like to note the following:

    1) The entire historical site (Reservoir+Filtration Plant) is 118 acres.

    2) The McMillan Filtration Plant straddles both sides of First Street NW and the 25 acre site that is currently threatened with demolition and development is just a portion of the original facility and park.

    3) The plan for a landscaped public park encompassing the surface area of the filtration plant and the grounds surrounding the reservoir started to take hold following the death of Senator James McMillan (1902). This plan for a park was formally announced by the Secretary of War, William Howard Taft (future president) in 1906 when he declared the grounds of the filtration plant, the reservoir and all approaches “McMillan Park” in honor of the late senator and in recognition for all the work he had done for the District of Columbia (Restoration of The Mall, Union Station, Supreme Court Building, etc, etc) and especially for his efforts in bringing to fruition the filtration plant. Note, prior to the inauguration of the filtration plant, DC water was highly suspect and often described as the worst in the country since it was piped directly from the Potomac River without any kind of intermediary purification process. Homes, businesses, offices often resorted to individual filters on faucets and taps and, still, the water was often ‘muddy’ and ‘murky’. Every year thousands of people in the District of Columbia either suffered severe illness or needlessly perished from water born diseases. It is to Senator James McMillan’s leadership and credit that the log jam of bureaucracy was broken and the plan for the filtration plant was finally developed, funded and realized.

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