recovering mcmillan park : dc filtration plant 1902-2005

[ thesis, master of architectural history | uva 2005 ]

McMillan Park is an expansive, grassy terrace in the urban terrain of north central Washington, DC. Split by First Street, the western section is groomed and occupied, while the eastern area is scraggly and vacant. Both sides were the McMillan slow sand water filtration plant, before 1986, when half was modernized and the other half began to decay. The updated, rapid sand water filtration plant is federal property, controlled by the Washington Aqueduct Division. The ruined portion is a potential boon to developers, preservationists, and landscape designers. These three contenders see the landscape as obsolete, iconic, and fodder for contemporary design, respectively. Their interpretations do not address the landscape’s physical depth, essential processes, and beautiful decay. 

DC's unsanitary water and high typhoid incidence drove the filtration plant's development in 1902. Allen Hazen, the plant’s engineer, embedded the filter into the escarpment—the plant was a dynamic, constructed volume that drew water from the Potomac. Under the McMillan Plan, the Senate Park Commission reinterpreted the plant as open space, extending it into a proposed park system and a visual prospect over the city. Actively filtering in 1906, the plant became a commemorative park designed by FL Olmsted, Jr. and dedicated to Senator McMillan.

This thesis recovers the architecture of McMillan Park. The approach combines contemporary landscape theory and urban history into a methodology for architectural history. It is in part a demonstration: infrastructure is aesthetic; landscape is physical, temporal, and ideological; and the built environment is illuminated by its scientific, cultural, and social contexts. From its inception, the plant was inflected by sanitary science, vision planning, the City Beautiful aesthetic, and the Olmsted landscape legacy. McMillan Park was an intermediary space between visible and hidden, monumental and functional, permanent and transitory, and localized and networked—the essence of civic infrastructure. Future proposals for the Park should address the plant's depth and highlight its active landscape, not only the iconic towers.  

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