A Farewell to Charms…

Like much of the last week, my last day in Washington, D.C. this summer is very bittersweet! The community at Dumbarton Oaks is so full of talented, inspiring people working on incredible projects. I will definitely miss lunchtime underneath the ancient trees with all the buzz of scholarly conversation.

For me, the work this summer on Triangle Parks in Washington, D.C. was truly an incredible experience. This was my first time executing a project from an academic library and I am so grateful for the support and generosity of the Garden and Landscape staff, librarians, and fellows at Dumbarton Oaks!  I was surprised how – through my internship – the project scope and outcomes advanced to a degree that I hadn’t anticipated.  The research broke down into four main components which I describe here in my final blog post.  At the end, I briefly outline where the research is going upon my departure from Dumbarton Oaks.

Triangle Parks Figure Ground (© Abad Ocubillo 2012).  I identified a number of different spatial typologies for Triangle Parks in Washington, D.C.

Understanding Triangle Parks first required developing a narrative history of these small reservations; considering them as a whole system and in some cases, diving deeper into the evolution of specific parcels. I discovered a complicated and contentious history in which jurisdiction of roads and residual Triangle Parks changed at odd intervals over the last two hundred years. Tracing a history for these places also proved difficult due to the various ways in which they are referenced in archival material. Newsprint articles, pieces of government legislation, correspondence and other documents use words such as “triangles,” “reservations,” “parks,” “planted areas,” “parklets,” “parking,” or “islands” interchangeably to refer to the parcels in question. By synthesizing primary and secondary sources, I was finally able to construct a timeline of development and jurisdictional oversight that inform an understanding of the Triangle Parks today.

“Map of Washington D.C. showing wood, concrete, and stone street pavements” (William James Stone, 1873)

An analysis of archival maps and photos was the next critical component of understanding the Parks’ developmental history. The Library of Congress and numerous other small collections throughout Washington, D.C. supplied an incredible wealth of historic cartography related to the City and region. I carefully combed through these to find a dozen or so maps spanning two centuries that illustrated the first appearance of Triangle Parks and later, their systematic identification and cataloging by the Office of Public Buildings & Grounds. The same agency photographed a majority of the triangular reservations extant during the 1920s and 30s. This collection of archival photographs – now held at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. – is an invaluable resource for the study of the Triangle Parks. These historic photos helped me select a shortlist of sites to visit and document in their present day condition.

The third challenge involved assembling a GIS database of the Triangle Parks which accurately noted attributes such as size, location, jurisdictional history, built program (such as monuments, statuary, fountains, or public art), and any other notable characteristics. I found that due to inconsistent management and jurisdiction of the Triangle Parks over the last two hundred years, no single list really incorporated all the needed information. In the end I had to manually merge datasets from the National Park Service, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, the D.C. Geographic Information Systems Office and others; correlating the new catalogue with the collection of archival maps which I georeferenced in GIS. In the end, my work this summer became a cataloguing and mapping project as much as an inquiry into spatial and social history of these places.

Fieldwork comprised the fourth component of research for this summer’s work, and was perhaps the most fun to execute. Onsite documentation brought me to all corners of the District of Columbia. In total, I visited over fifty of the District’s five-hundred or so triangles. I discovered that conditions at sites varied greatly across the city, reflecting patterns of uneven investment and attention that go back more than a century. In upper northwest and northeast, for example, Triangle Parks are relatively simple vegetated plots, whereas in central northwest they serve as venues for monumental statues and fountains. In the southwest, I documented how triangular reservations are still in the same state of underdevelopment as they were a century ago! Also, in all quarters of the city Triangle Parks were lost to redevelopment, mid-century urban renewal and the development of local highway infrastructure. Further site-specific investigations revealed a diversity of management arrangements for community-sponsored dog parks, vegetable gardens, and playgrounds. Triangle Parks can also emblematize local revitalization programs and community cohesion with public artwork, planting and stewardship programs.

“Hmm + Ahh” by Robert Cole, S Street Dog Park / Reservation 144 (© Abad Ocubillo 2012)

The outcomes of this summer’s research project are manifold. I am busily finalizing a research paper which will be presented at the Historic Roads Conference in Indianapolis later this fall. I’m also collaborating with the Editor of Sitewide Engagement at The Washington Post on a piece about Triangle Parks. Finally, I’m continuously updating my exhibit at the Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Studies Intern Projects website with fresh pieces of analysis. I’m developing interactive maps and timelines that should online there soon.  I’ll be updating this blog post with links as new pieces go live.  Please contact me at robin.abad@gmail.com if you have any questions or suggestions!

Thank you Dumbarton Oaks! It’s been an unforgettable summer.

Monumentality in Microcosm: Triangle Parks in Washington, D.C.

By Robin Abad Ocubillo

July 13, 2012

Greetings all…!  I’m honored to be the Landscape Architecture Intern this summer, a position refashioned in 2009 after a program which was active at Dumbarton Oaks during the 50s-70s.   As a Landscape Architecture Intern, my work actually focuses on an urban topic not specific to the Dumbarton Oaks estate, but to the city of Washington D.C. itself.  From the earliest dreams of Thomas Jefferson and Pierre-Charles L’Enfant to the boosters of the Gilded Age, Washington, D.C. was conceived as a garden its own right.  For over two centuries, the real and imagined city of Washington has been depicted in plans, maps, and renderings as both a front yard to the nation’s vast wilderness and an arcadian setting for the seat of a new democracy.

Washington, D.C.’s layout melds Baroque garden and urban design elements (axial) with Jeffersonian rationality (gridiron), creating a great variety of spatial types. (map generated by the author using GIS datasets from the National District Planning Commission)

Beaux-Arts Era urban planning layered a distinct spatial quality into American cities.  These majestic landscapes of carefully framed vistas, axial boulevards, etoilles, and monumental architecture conveyed political potency, social grandeur and cultural primacy.  At the same time, the lucid geometry of these grand master plans systematically produced small, incidental spaces in the urban fabric.  Situated at the intersection of roads, these irregular voids contradict the rational clarity of the grandiose city schemes that produced them.  Roadway triangles in particular occur routinely and frequently, yet never share the exact same geometric and programmatic profile.  At times, they serve as gateways, venues for monuments, or mark district thresholds; more often, their function and importance was overlooked.   My study constructs a historical narrative examining the spatial, social, and political dimensions of these remnant pieces of land in the Capitol.  These are examined both as a whole system and in a series of individual case studies; supported by original photography and mapping.

Roadway triangles such as this one at Connecticut, 18th and N Streets were once blank voids in the city’s numerous irregular intersections. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, HABS DC,WASH,591-)

As the product of a Beaux-Arts plan re-interpreted and implemented in successive phases, Washington, D.C. hosts innumerable such remnant roadway triangles with footprints as small as five to twenty thousand square feet.  Given these sites’ tertiary status within the structure of the Baroque city plan, their purpose and utility has always been contested; in both social and infrastructural terms; as a collective feature and as individual sites.  Indeed, jurisdiction and stewardship of the sites has shifted throughout history.  In the present day, they host a range of programs and exhibit a great variety of horticultural treatment; indicative of an iconic presence within the civic consciousness of the Capitol.

The physical footprint, horticultural treatment, and monumental programme (a memorial statue) of Reservation 150A has remained unchanged over the years. However, many other triangles have undergone a variety of conversions and adaptations. This paper will map and explore some of the most interesting cases. (Image by the author).

I earned a Master of Landscape Architecture at the University of Southern California, and a B.A. in Industrial Design with minors in Urban Studies and Theatre Arts from San Francisco State University.  I also studied for one year at the School of Design and Systems Engineering at Brunel University, London.  Before graduate school, I worked for three years as a Project Manager at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy in San Francisco.  I’m thrilled to be part of the Dumbarton Oaks community!