Vintage landscape: Van Ness Park

Van Ness Park, 1880, Washington, D.C.“Two people relaxing in Van Ness Park about 1880,” Washington, D.C.,  via D.C. Public Library Commons photostream on Flickr.

This park was not located in the present-day upper-northwest neighborhood known as Van Ness.  The photo was taken in an area southwest of the White House near the corner of C and 18th Sts., N.W. — which was then known informally as “Van Ness Park.”

According to the Library’s notation on the photo, the building that can be seen in the middle of the far right side (above the man’s legs) is a “dependency  of Van Ness Mansion.”

Van Ness House (Mansion) and its grounds were located on the block bordered by 17th and 18th Sts. and  C St. and Constitution Ave.  Built about 1816, the Greek Revival house was one of the finest in the city until the Civil War.  But afterwards, it served as a “German beer garden, florist’s nursery, headquarters of the city streetcleaners, and in the end, for the Columbia Athletic Club,” according to the blog Lost Washington.

The college that became George Washington University bought the property in 1903 but later decided that its location was too unhealthy for campus facilities.  At that time, the Potomac River and its marshes came up to B St., now Constitution Ave.

The State Department bought it in 1907, tore down the house, and built the Pan American Union (today OAS) Building.

I think the dependency in the photo is the old stable of the estate, which still exists at C and 18th Sts.  If that’s so, the couple may be lounging in what is now Bolivar Park.

According to the blog DC Ghosts, the stables have a connection to a local ghost story in which six white horses “run wildly around the grounds” and then group together to walk to the P St. Bridge crossing to Georgetown and Oak Hill Cemetery.  The full story is here.

It is good to be alone in a garden at dawn or dark so that all its shy presences may haunt you and possess you in a reverie of suspended thought.

— James Douglas, Down Shoe Lane

Faithful and true ground

Is anything more poignant than an old graveyard?

An angel headstone, the words have faded.
Mt. Zion Cemetery.  Click the photos to enlarge.

Mt. Zion Cemetery is tucked behind the apartment buildings and townhouses of the 2500 block of Q Street, NW, at the edge of Georgetown.  I often pass it on my bus ride home. On Wednesday, as I was walking home after the earthquake, I stopped to take a closer look.

A group of headstones at Mt Zion.
A family enclosure.
The Logans were a prominent Black Washington family.

The burial ground covers about 3 acres.   Many of the headstones have fallen or have been moved over time and are now consolidated into a few groupings.  The grass is neatly cut and trimmed around the stones, but there are no flowers or other plantings.   The woods of the Rock Creek Park trail surround the cemetery to the north and east.

What I suspected as I looked around — later confirmed by some online research — was that Mt. Zion was an old African-American cemetery, a reminder of the time (from the 1700s until the 1950s) when Georgetown had a large Black population.

A group of tombstones overlooked by townhouses on Q Street.
A woman’s headstone.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century headstones.
A stone pillar once stood upright and held the railings around a family’s graves.
A broken headstone from the 1850s on the ground.
Someone has left behind a book of poetry.

Beginning in 1809, the cemetery’s western side was used by the Mongomery Street Church for the burials of its white members and their slaves, as well as of free African-American members.  It was known as the Old Methodist Burying Ground, and its largest monument marks the graves of the white Beck and Doughty families.  It was a biracial cemetery for a biracial (but not equal status) church while slaves were still being sold in Georgetown.

Old Methodist fell into disuse after Oak Hill Cemetery, located just to the west and north, was founded in 1849.  In 1879, the plot was leased for 99 years by Mt. Zion Methodist Church, the oldest African-American church in Washington.

A group of graves at the edge of the woods of Rock Creek Park.
Another view.

The east side of the cemetery had already been purchased in 1842 by a local cooperative benevolent association of Black women and had become the Female Union Band Graveyard for the burial of free Blacks.

The entry sign to the cemetery.

For decades, both cemeteries were well maintained, but eventually lack of funds led to disrepair, and the last burials were held in 1950.

In the late 1960s, the cemeteries were threatened with removal of the graves for development.  Various local groups and individuals worked together to save them, and, in 1975, they were declared a Historical Landmark of Washington, D.C., and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A small, lone headstone.

There’s a complete history of Mt. Zion Cemetery  by Pauline Gaskins Mitchell in the appendix of the 1991 book Black Georgetown Remembered, which can be read at this link.  The complete book can be purchased at Amazon.

ADDENDUM: “A 2 Georgetown Cemeteries, History in Black and White,” New York Times, October 21, 2016, here.