Historic Profile of Petworth’s Grant Circle

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Detail of Hopkin’s 1894 map: The vicinity of Washington, D.C. showing location of Grant Circle as platted. (From the collection of the Library of Congress)

Detail of Hopkin’s 1894 map: The vicinity of Washington, D.C. showing location of Grant Circle as platted. (From the collection of the Library of Congress)

Grant Circle is named for Civil War general and 18th U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. This large circle features no statue, but instead walks and attractive landscaping around a very old pine tree.

The neighborhood of Petworth dates to early 1887 when a syndicate represented by Benjamin H. Warder of Springfield, Ohio, purchased the 205 acre country seat of Benjamin Ogle Tayloe from his heirs. The neighborhood takes its name from Tayloe’s estate.

The tract, located north of Rock Creek Church Road and east of the Seventh Street Road (Georgia Avenue) was quickly subdivided. Warder and his partners planned to extensively improve the property for the construction of residential lots, including streets and avenues of the full width of the city streets conforming to the L’Enfant plan. This included the platting of two circles – Grant and Sherman.

The improvements of Grant Circle, much like the development of Petworth, was slow with little noticeable improvements until the early 20th Century. Initial delays were caused by the engineers being so busy in the spring of 1887 that they were unable to complete the surveying of the subdivision. Warder’s death in 1894 also hampered progress in the development of the subdivision.

In October 1914, Col. W. W. Harts, superintendent of public buildings and grounds as well as secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, proposed improvements for Grant Circle and McMillan Park to the Commission. By December, plans for the undeveloped park took into account the open vista to preserve the line of New Hampshire Avenue. At this time development of the Petworth neighborhood was still a short distance to the south and west with open space surrounding Grant Circle.

Parade float on New Hampshire Avenue with Grant Circle in the background, July 4, 1921 (photo from author's collection).

Parade float on New Hampshire Avenue with Grant Circle in the background, July 4, 1921 (©photo from author’s collection).

The vicinity around the circle quickly began to develop in 1915. In addition to the circle fast building up with residential structures, Petworth Methodist Episcopal Church purchased a site on the circle between New Hampshire Avenue and Varnum Street. St. Gabriels church also chose to locate here. Located on the circle between Varnum and Illinois Avenue, St. Gabriels was officially dedicated in 1924.

The Commission of Fine Arts favored relocating the Bartholdi Fountain to Grant Circle in 1925 and 1926 when Congress was looking to relocate the fountain. The photograph above shows it in its original position on the Mall on January 1, 1924. (Photo from author's collection).

The Commission of Fine Arts favored relocating the Bartholdi Fountain to Grant Circle in 1925 and 1926 when Congress was looking to relocate the fountain. The photograph above shows it in its original position on the Mall on January 1, 1924. (©Photo from author’s collection).

This period of development coincided with the creation of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial to the west of the U.S. Capitol. The Grant Memorial required the reworking of the U.S. Botanic Garden and Bartholdi Fountain grounds. When the removal of the fountain to a site at Chevy Chase Circle was proposed in the spring of 1925, it was disapproved by the Commission of Fine Arts. Instead, the Commission suggested Grant Circle as a more appropriate site if Congress was agreeable to the change. As Congress considered legislation to remove the fountain from the Botanic Garden site in March 1926, the Commission of Fine Arts again favored Grant Circle as a possible new site. Ultimately, with the relocation of the Botanic Garden in 1927, the fountain was dismantled and erected in 1932 in its present location south of the Botanic Garden.

In 1991, Metro’s plan to build the Green Line beneath Grant Circle caused great concern to the community. The 1.8 acre-park was lined with 50-year-old trees, hedges and benches. Transit officials originally proposed wiping out ten houses between Upshur Street and the circle to build a fan shaft and power station for the Georgia Avenue-Petworth subway stop located to the southwest at New Hampshire and Georgia avenues. In response to community opposition, Metro decided to build the fan shaft and power station at the circle. Construction began in 1994.

Tunneling under Grant Circle was completed late in 1997. During the three years of construction, the circle resembled a wasteland – but by December 1997 the park had been refurbished with new grass, newly poured concrete walkways, and new saplings. The park remained closed to residents until spring 1998 to give the new trees and grass time to adjust. Other than the metal grates over a huge subterranean power substation that Metro built under Grant Circle, the park maintains a high degree of its original integrity.

During the process, Metro took some unusual steps to preserve the park – including scraping up the topsoil and storing it elsewhere for three years. Metro also hired an arborist to make weekly house calls on four mature conifers in the park. The four, a cedrus atlanticus that sits in the center of the park, two rare firs and a Himalayan pine, were fenced off from danger. All four trees survived the process.

While the firs are struggling today, the white pine on the east side of the circle and the two Himalayan pines on the west side of the circle were healthy and thriving, as was the cedrus atlanticus at the center of the park.

Bibliography:

“Another Purchase of Suburban Property.” The Washington Post, March 4, 1887, p. 3.

“Art Commission Busy,” The Washington Post, Oct. 10, 1914, p. 16.

“Bishop Dedicates Newest Catholic Church in Capital.” The Washington Post, Dec. 15, 1924, p. 2.

Fehr, Stephen C. “Grant Circle Warily eyes Going Green: Metro Line to Bring Disruption, Change.” The Washington Post, March 7, 1992, p. E01.

McDade, Matt. “Grant Circle: It’s a Sunday Kind of Place.” The Washington Post, Dec. 10, 1951, p. B1.

Nilsson, Dex. The Names of Washington, D.C. Rockville, MD: Twinbrook Communications, c1998.

“Petworth Church to Build.” The Washington Post, April 25, 1915, p. 15.

“The Real Estate Market: Effect of the Extension of City Streets Upon Suburban Property. Suburban Property in the Line of Streets. Negotiations Pending.” The Washington Post, March 6, 1887, p. 2.

Reid, Alice. “Refurbished Park Is a Reward for Petworth: Work at Grant Circle Makes Up for Some of Disruptions Caused by Green Line Construction.” The Washington Post, Dec. 26, 1997, p. B03.

“Suburban Property: Tracts Which Are Being Subdivided Into Lots.” The Washington Post, June 13, 1887, p. 4.

“Washington Park Extension.” The Washington Post, Dec. 27, 1914, p. ES4.

View toward the southwest showing the deoadar cedar and the Methodist Episcopal Church in the background.

View toward the southwest showing the deoadar cedar and the Methodist Episcopal Church in the background.

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8 Comments on “Historic Profile of Petworth’s Grant Circle”

  1. Angry Parakeet Says:

    Thanks for the history, especially that of Metro as it is tied to the Circle. I’ve been in that power station but wasn’t clear exactly where I was. Saving the soil – and reusing it – bravo!

  2. Pamela Duncan Says:

    I am so glad to see someone focusing on this neighborhood. I lived in the nearly adjacent and little known “Manor Park.”

  3. Byron Says:

    Would have been great for Metro to actually put a station at Grant Circle, but you can’t win ’em all. Still, a future infill station could happen someday.

  4. Doug Says:

    The street identified as “Brandywine” on the map, is it the current Ingraham? It is interesting to note that two creeks ran just north of the intersection of Brandywine and Fifth.

    • Kent Says:

      Street names were changed in 1905 to the 2nd & 3rd alphabet system we know today. I found a reference that Albemarle was changed to Gallatin, so the street to the north should be Hamilton.

  5. Rick Toye Says:

    Good story. I grew up in this neighborhood in which my family has resided in since 1958. I have nothing but positive comments anytime anyone mentions Petworth. From 1964 – 1967, I had a super great experience in being a carrier for the Washington Post in Petworth, and now I sell real estate in Petworth!

  6. Lohna Burns Says:

    Been looking at that magnificent tree for years on my way into DC. It’s absolutely stunning……and with snow on it. Thank you for the history.


  7. […] the historic district nomination has not been posted on the HPO Web site yet, you can learn some of Grant Circle’s history from my August 22, 2013 post on the […]


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