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Parkitecture in our Backyard

A view from the Thompson Boat House toward the Potomac River

As the summer tourist season envelops Washington, D.C., many of the local residents of our nation’s capital hit the road to more sparsely populated locales – often to our public lands and national parks for rest and relaxation. Mid-century planning and design made these retreats more accessible as their development coincided with the rise of the private automobile. The first in a three part series, this post will look at how the legacy of modernism is still present in Washington’s national park properties and how it is indicative of the experiences you might encounter throughout the National Park system.

Like many of its more grandiose counterparts, park architecture in Washington, D.C., has given priority to symbolic monumentality and grand vistas while humbly connecting visitors to nature and culture. Starting in 1956, the National Park Service undertook a 10-year, billion dollar initiative to revitalize and modernize the national park system. Key to that experience was increasing accessibility given the impact of the rise of the automobile on both urban and rural landscapes.

Within the monumental core of Washington, many different architects and engineers designed the infrastructure visitors rely on today. The same architects also took on the challenge of creating connections between culture, history and nature, which are indicative of architecture and design goals in many of the more grandiose national park settings. One was William Haussman, who worked on variety of traditional historic preservation and engineering projects in the D.C. area but also designed several of the buildings most akin the their cousin’s deferential celebration of their settings across the country.

Originally known as the National Capital Water Sports Center, the Thompson Boat Center was designed by Haussman and constructed in 1960. At the time, it represented a unique opportunity for the public to interact with the Potomac River and stood in stark contrast to its industrial surroundings. The center uses uncomplicated horizontal lines to establish a connection with the expansive Potomac River at its feet while the simple material palette of stone, steel, glass and brick reference the vernacular of the industrial city. The modern face of the edifice stands in contrast to the gabled boathouses of the private boat clubs now just beyond the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Standing on the deck of the boat center, the Potomac River opens out before you and across the river you may be able to recognize the top of the Netherlands Carillon, another of Haussman’s DC projects. The Carillon tower designed by Joost W. C. Boks, a Dutch architect, was dedicated the same year as the boathouse. Haussman managed the construction of this project on behalf of the foreign architect and the National Park Service. The black edifice evokes a stoic tone in contrast to the white stone pillars across the Alrington Memorial Bridge. A source of curiosity for visitors of the nearby Marine Corps Memorial, the carillon enables visitors to learn more about their shared history since WWII. The carillon is currently planned for rehabilitation by the National Park Service.

Perhaps the most recognizable park architecture typology is the visitor center or nature center. In Rock Creek Park, the nature center sits atop a hill, pulled away from the heavily trafficked foot trails of the valley below. True to 1960s park planning, the Nature Center and Planetarium are primarily meant to be accessed by car, reinforcing the idea that outdoor recreation was an accessible, although as a default, middle-class recreational pursuit. The building shows key characteristics of the functional approach to park architecture – meeting the pressing needs for comfort and educational programs while reducing the visual intrusion in the landscape. The inverted roof, stone piers and timber columns celebrate the height and breadth of the forest canopy. The nature center replaced similar programs in the Klingle Mansion but also incorporated a planetarium into the design. Haussman designed the building to incorporate the educational programs so often seen in major national parks into Washington’s largest park. Plans are currently underway to renovate the nature center and the adjacent equestrian center.

Unlike some of the more naturalistic landscapes of larger park service units, in Washington, D.C., the boundaries between the constructed landscape and the organic are more fluid. The design of intentional touch-points between the two highlight our everyday impact on the natural world. Through Haussman’s work, the visitor is introduced to lost cultural legacies and overshadowed natural wonders. As maintenance and renewal for these sites continue,retaining their modern character will be an important charge for outdoor and architecture enthusiasts alike.

This post is a first in a three part series on the ongoing impact of modernism within the National Parks system and its continued impact to inform our understanding of the natural world.




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