AT THE TIME of its dedication in 1932, the George Washington Memorial Parkway was hailed as the most fitting memorial to the former president due to its combination of modern design, historical references, and natural scenery. As a modern highway, it underscored the importance of America and Washington’s own engineering accomplishments. As a commemorative route to Mount Vernon that passed places important in Washington’s life and legacy, it reinforced the tradition of making a patriotic pilgrimage to Washington’s home. And by transforming the unsightly Potomac waterfront into a picturesque landscape, it enveloped the modern and historical aspects of the highway into a scenic naturalistic landscape, grounding it in a reassuring sense of nature. Landscape architect Wilbur Simonson’s planting design manifested these three values along the parkway. The design accentuated the modern aspects of the roadway, framed significant views to historical structures and monuments and created an idealized Virginia landscape through which motorists passed as they journeyed to Mount Vernon. Simonson’s design has changed radically in the ensuing 75 years. These changes include development of Reagan National Airport, the realignment of the road in several places, the installation of two-dozen additional planting plans, and areas that have been filled-in for development along the Potomac River shoreline. During 2007 to 2009, Paul Kelsch, faculty member in the Landscape Architecture Program in the School of Architecture + Design, and graduate students Annalisa Miller, Irene Mills, and Jacye Swallow constructed a palimpsest or layered diagram of the various plans to determine the history of the vegetation, and its impact on the road’s modern, historical and natural aspects. Proposals to the National Park Service included restoration of critical plantings, removal of vegetation to reclaim historically important views, and maintenance of the spatial sequence and vegetative distinctiveness that characterized Simonson’s design. The park service staff used the proposals to make decisions about native plant restoration and historical preservation, and thus far they have planted hundreds of trees with the aim of restoring the vegetative character of the parkway.
Contributor: Paul Kelsch