Where else in Washington, D.C. can you find the country’s longest cascading fountain, a monument to our fifteenth president, a statue honoring Joan of Arc and the poet Dante, and a Sunday afternoon drum circle that dates from the 1960s?
Meridian Hill Park in D.C. of course!
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History of Meridian Hill Park
Meridian Hill Park’s history is complicated. When America was still new as a country, we saw wealthy men building mansions and estates around Washington, D.C. and Meridian Hill was one such place.
John Porter mansion
In 1819, a fellow named John Porter built a mansion aptly called “Meridian Hill”, as it stood directly in line with the southernmost boundary stone of the newly surveyed District of Columbia in 1791 (located in present day Alexandria, VA at Jones Point).
John Quincy Adams called the mansion home in 1829 after his time in the White House as president ended. The Columbian College (present day George Washington University), took over the building after he vacated.
Civil War History
Meridian Hill then became part of a Civil War encampment by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his Union troops. He was the commander of the 54th Massachusetts Union Army Regiment, the Northeast’s first all-Black regiment. D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood is named after him.
National Parks Service
In 1910, when the federal government purchased the land and by 1914 plans were underway to transform this rugged landscape into a formal park patterned after European prototypes. But like all things in government, plans took on a snail place to come to fruition.
It became National Park Service property in 1933, and was officially titled as a formal park by 1936.
Meridian Hill Park gets a little more noteworthy as it was the first national park built for the performing arts. Artists like Pearl Bailey and Bo Diddley Jr. performed here during their heydays.
Malcolm X Park
While the official name is still Meridian Hill Park, at a rally in 1969, Angela Davis called for the park to be renamed after Malcom X to celebrate the long Black history that took place in the park and surrounding neighborhoods.
Wayland Seminary and College once called the hilltop home, and many Blacks who were displaced by the park, were also the people to have built it. Along with the Civil War history of the park, Davis had a solid argument.
The name was never officially changed, but the Black Panthers used the park as a rallying point and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. frequented the park whenever he stayed at the Pitts Motor Hotel. Celebrations like African Liberation Day and Malcolm X Day, have also been celebrated in the park for more than 50 years.
Meridian Hill Park Innovations
Did we mention the groundbreaking use of aggregate concrete throughout the park yet?
When landscape architects George Burnap and Horace Peaslee planned out their Italian-style garden in Meridian Hill Park, they used aggregated concrete, a material that had never been used as a building material before.
So, not only is this the longest cascading fountain in the country, it was also the first to use this particular type of concrete.
Where is Meridian Hill in Washington DC?
Travel south down 16th street and you will see Meridian Hill Park just above U Street and before you get to Columbia Heights (there is a lot of debate about boundaries, whether this is in Adams Morgan, U Street or Columbia Heights).
This National Historic Landmark is easy to drive to from the White House if you need a little break from your Capitol tour or you want to check out different parts of what is technically still part of Rock Creek Park.
How to get to Meridian Hill?
Because of its placement literally in the middle of the city, many subway lines are in proximity but not close; the bus or driving is a better option. Parking can be tricky, especially at night, but the surrounding neighborhood does have street parking, which you can easily walk to and from to enjoy the park.
Just remember to check the parking signs before you leave your car. In this part of the city, often times one side of the street will be for residents with parking permits only, while the other side is two-hour parking for visitors.
10 Things to do in Meridian Hill Park
A wedding ceremony, a soccer game or two on the vast upper field, an impromptu concert, and a yoga class- all at the same time in the same place? This is Meridian Hill Park, folks, and it is open to anyone and everyone.
Meridian Hill Park Drum Circle
What first began as a few Black drummers and dancers meeting up in the park in the 60s, has now turned into a full blown drum circle party in Washington, D.C. every Sunday starting at 3pm.
Today, there is a diverse mix of tight-rope walkers, hula-hoopers, yogis, and even jugglers, joining the drum circle. Families are welcome to attend, and you will often see kids running around the park with friends, while their parents drum (with one eye on the kids of course).
The longest cascading fountain in the country can be found in Meridian Park. The thirteen-basin cascading fountain is a sight to behold when you visit for the first time. It will make you want to come back each time you visit Washington, D.C. to see how it changes with the seasons.
Love waterfalls? Check out the best waterfalls near D.C.
The Reflecting Pool below the cascading fountain is fun to walk around in autumn and spring, when the weather isn’t too hot and the mosquitos haven’t descended on the District.
James Buchanan Memorial
Located on the southeast corner of Meridian Hill Park, you will find the bronze and granite James Buchanan memorial designed by William Gorden Beecher and sculpted by Hans Schuler.
Joan of Arc Statue
The Joan of Arc Statue, sculpted by Paul Dubois, stands tall over Meridian Hill Park looking down towards the cascading fountain. It was donated to Washington, D.C. by the Société des Femmes de France of New York. The wife of the French Ambassador in 1936, dedicated the statue, which was said to be a “gift from the women of France to the women of the United States.”
Most notably, this 10-foot-long, 9-foot-high bronze statue is the only equestrian statue of a woman in Washington, D.C. It depicts a teenaged Joan of Arc seated on horseback with her sword drawn to lead French troops in the 100 Years War. Her original sword was stolen, but later replaced when other repairs were done to the ironwork. There is an identical sculpture in front of the Reims Cathedral in France.
The statue of Dante Alighieri was created by artist Italian artist Ettore Ximenes, and is just one of many pieces of public art in D.C.
This marble piece of public art was sculpted by Jose Clara to honor naval officer William Henry Scheutze. Unfortunately, time and vandalism has taken a toll on this once beautiful piece. She is now a shell of what she once was.
Noyes Armillary Sphere
Once a focal point of the park, the Sphere was vandalized in the 1960s and later disappeared. NPS still hasn’t found it, but is said to be working on a replacement.
Picnics in the Park
It’s easy to pack up a picnic, grab a frisbee or soccer ball, and enjoy a little downtime in the park. While there are more secluded spots, most people like to hang out on the large lawn above the fountain.
Nearby Watermelon House
Not too far from Meridian Park, you will find the Watermelon House. This private row home is painted to look like a slice of watermelon, with kiwi slices painted on a back building next to it. Washington DC loves its murals, so the house soon became a tourist attraction and one of the most Instagrammed walls in the District.
Find it for yourself at 1112 Q St. NW, Washington, DC.
Tips for Visiting Meridian Hill
- Address: 16th Street & W Street NW, Washington, D.C.
- Closest metro stops: Green and Yellow line stops
- U St/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo (11 minute walk)
- Columbia Heights (15 minute walk)
- Open times: Open until 9pm (winter) and midnight in the summer months.
- Toilets are available onsite.
- Placards with historical information can be found throughout the park.
- Drinking water is available.
- Wheelchair Accessible (in some parts, but the concrete is textured and bumpy)
Looking for a Washington DC Hotel?
- Hotel Hive – Affordable, trendy, pet-friendly hotel
- Eaton Hotel – Stay in the heart of DC
- Four Seasons Hotel Washington DC – DC luxury at it’s best
- Kimpton Hotel George – Great for families and pets
- Willard InterContinental Washington – Historic hotel right near the White House