This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Anath: So we’re going to talk to you about Glen Echo Park, which is located in Montgomery County Maryland. It’s about 20, 30 minutes outside of Washington D.C. And this is a project that we started in 2003, which is when my daughter was born, and MJ’s daughter was born. They’re now 15. By the time the project is complete they’ll probably be 16 or 17. So this is clearly an ongoing effort, which I think seems to be a common theme among conservation preservation projects, in particular when there are public agencies involved.
This one involves a combination of Montgomery County Maryland Parks, the Glen Echo Park Partnership, and the National Park Service. And among those groups they do both the management of the park and projects. They do joint funding, and the park service in particular oversees the preservation and restoration efforts. For each project, they have preservation architects that help determine what level of preservation, restoration, and all those kinds of nuances need to happen for each particular project.
When started this in 2003 the park itself was over 100 years old. It predates a lot of the roadside architecture that we’ve been seeing in previous presentations, but it also includes some of that. What’s really interesting about the park and about projects is that what’s represented here are a number of different layers of American culture and American history, which MJ will get into momentarily.
When we started in 2003 the structures were in deteriorating condition. Some of them were actually hazards. But it was nonetheless occupied. There were a number of artist groups. There was a theater in there. There were still people coming to the place as a place with a lot of memory there and a lot of special activities that were occurring.
So I’m going to hand it off to MJ, who has been intimately involved with this projects on an ongoing basis since 2003, and will probably see it through for the next year or so until it’s 100% restored.
MJ: So as Anath mentioned, her daughter was born the year we started working on it and so was mine. So I have a lot of memories of my daughter and my sons associated with the park, because I take them on job site visits and things like that. And as well, going down to the park to see the festivals every year, and going on the carousel. One of the first things you notice when you get to the park, before you’ve really gotten deep into it, is you hear this music. And it’s the Wurlitzer band organ from the carousel. From May until October the carousel rides are a dollar a piece, and they have this big, wonderful band organ that just pipes music through the park. So that’s sort of the first thing you see.
But then you start to notice there’s a lot more. There are galleries and art shows. There are kids running around. There are boards that tell you when the next puppet company performance is, and when there’s a show at Adventure Theater. There’s summer camps. Saturday nights there are swing dance events, music performances, among many, many other things. And all of this sort of very active community is surrounded by these old amusement park facades. They provide the backdrop for this very fantastical place.
These amusement park structures are on top of these much older … well, much, maybe not in terms of ancient, but more than 100 years old of a different sort of attraction. These are odd sorts of ruins. Let’s go to see them. Here we go.
You all probably have or had or your mother had an egg beater, one of those hand egg beater things. My mother recently gave one to my daughter. Well, the people who invented the egg beater, back in 1888, they got the patent on that and got a lot of money. And they found this site. They bought it to develop it as a Chautauqua retreat. Basically, the concept for this place was to offer visitors a vacation in nature, away from the city, and to provide cultural activities. So they would be lectures, art classes, concerts. It was kind of like a summer camp for the whole family. And to ensure the success of this the brothers who invented the egg beater worked out a deal with the D.C. railroad to run a spur out up the Potomac River to their site. It was sort of easy access, kind of an idyllic setting, along the river. And they built these really interesting structures.
The architecture is kind of magical. It’s a strange contrast of materials. They’re these really large, rubble-like stone buildings that were from the quarry that’s just up the river. And then sort of intertwined through them is these wood frame structures that were maybe feeling a lot more temporal than the old stone structures. But they’re sort of fragile and very rustic feeling. So you got the feeling that you were in nature. It was a very strong contrast between the urban, industrial sort of feel. It was a great place to sort of get out of the city.
But there was the panic in 1893, and other events that sort of led to the Chautauqua Society fading at this site. Nonetheless, it was a highly accessible site, and so other things moved in. They would have Vaudeville performances. People would have picnics and events there. Because it was easy to get to, and there was electricity there, they were able to bring carnival rides out. Over the next 10, 20 years they introduced a gyroplane ride, a roller coaster came in. It was particularly dangerous, and always fun to read newspaper articles about people standing up on the ride going down the hill, and meeting their demise. They had a Hall of Mirrors, a fun house.
In 1921 they brought in a carousel, a Dentzel Carousel, and built this really spectacular pavilion. It’s not the same as House on the Rocks, but nonetheless, it’s a pretty grand menagerie carousel. And some of the attractions that they brought in were just built on the ruins of these old Chautauqua buildings. So for instance, what was originally a 6,000 seat amphitheater became the foundations for a pool that was obviously very popular in D.C. It gets really hot and humid, and that brought a lot of people out to the site. This carnival atmosphere, basically, it exemplified kind of an updated version of the original vision, which was a retreat from urban life. Sort of a way to get away for the day, and just have a fantastical event.
But things as culture does change, and along with sort of the experience that Route 66 had, changing with larger highways, also, these smaller amusement parks, there was an impact on them. The road trip that made Route 66 a wonderful thing, and our love affair with cars, sort of allowed people to go faster, quicker. And the regional amusement parks really took over. So you probably all have some memory of a remnant of an amusement park that was local. Glen Echo held on a lot longer than a lot of those did, but eventually the popularity of it just couldn’t compete with those larger, regional parks.
But through the ’60s, it did hold. There was a protest by some Howard University students to do a ride in on the carousel in 1961. And that was actually really pretty significant. After that the park became integrated. So that was a good step forward. Unfortunately, in the late ’60s the trolley service was shut down from D.C., and that ultimately made it untenable to keep the amusement park open.
Fortunately, in 1970 the National Park Service took over. And sort of the goal of the park service in this … because it was still, obviously, very accessible and a popular space. People were attached to the park with lots of memories, and there were all these layers of American culture there. So the goal was to keep that cultural space that people could continue to experience arts, and also to preserve the architecture and the history and the character of the site.
So this is sort of a map of the site itself. To the north, McArthur Boulevard was once the trolley tracks that came out from D.C. To the south, is the Potomac River. You don’t see it here. But you can see there are a lot of buildings that were still there from the amusement park, and they maintain them. There’s a ballroom where they have the swing dance. There’s the carousel in the middle. There’s a bumper car pavilion, which is a great place for concerts. They also do craft shows and things like that there. The remains of the Crystal Pool where the original amphitheater was. And at the top, there, you can see the gate house where the trolley car would come with the Chautauqua Tower and the Yellow Barn. And then the old Midway Arcade. There were rides all around here that came and went over the years, but the basic structure and layout of the park remains.
The first thing that we worked on was the carousel. This is a twelve-sided pavilion. It has a segmented domed roof, and clerestory windows. There are bi-fold doors around all 11 sides of it, and then the 12th side holds the band organ. So you can see the band organ room here. It’s not in great shape. So the work that we did for the pavilion was we did structural repairs, we refurbished the windows and doors, we did repainting of the entire shell, roof included. We found some interesting asphalt paint that we were able to get the color just right. They did some paint sample tests to find out what the original colors were on this, and then we used photographs from throughout the history of the park to sort of conglomerate what that roof would have been like.
The roof, prior to the renovation, was pretty close to what we ended up with afterwards as well. And the menagerie carousel, every year since the 1980s, the artist comes up from Florida and works on it, and touches up the paint, because it’s obviously very active and gets kicked around and things like that. But they keep that as an art piece restored. So that’s kind of an exciting ride, and it’s fun to be on. My kids love it. And so do I. But for budget reasons we weren’t able to reconstruct the band organ room. So that was kind of unfortunate. And we didn’t get to re-roof it. We just repainted the roof. But the roof was in okay shape at that point in time.
Next was the Chautauqua Tower, and the Yellow Barn, and the Candy Corner. So this is sort of a conglomeration of buildings that are at the entryway to the site. The Chautauqua Tower is the only fully intact original building on the site. It’s a circular structure with stone from the quarry up the Potomac River, and most of the wood casement windows are original. And originally, the stone wall here was part of a Chautauqua era building, but that burned in 1914 along with a roof of the Chautauqua Tower, and that got replaced. But when they came back in and built a maintenance shed for the amusement park. So that is the Yellow Barn. And the Yellow Barn, after the amusement park left, became a paint studio. And you can see the painters were basically working around shoring on the stone wall. So it’s kind of a hazardous building, to say the least. The second floor you couldn’t even go in if you valued your life.
The work that we did included replacing the roof on the tower, and a couple of the windows needed to be replaced. We refurbished them, fixed up the floors. We took out partitions that were put into the tower so that we would have big open spaces for gallery space. And then that tower is connected to the Yellow Barn, which was completely rebuilt. We numbered the stones on the wall, took the stones down, built a new foundation for it, because, basically, it was just on a rubble foundation. Built a basement to house all the mechanical equipment. Rebuilt that stone wall, and then rebuilt the Yellow Barn where the other Yellow Barn had been. This time, when we went back we made the spaces inside. So we were looking at the Yellow Barn from the amusement park era, but inside we were able to make the spaces accommodate the painters studio.
This is the final complex there. You got the Candy Corner. We had the neon restored. There’s a neon artist in Silver Spring who did the restoration of this as well as bunch of other neon signs around the park. And that Candy Corner pavilion holds some summer camps, so it’s not really a concession stand anymore, but it’s a real fun way to sort of get a vision of what the park was. All sort of the important elements of the park.
And then we moved on to some of the amusement park facades. You can see here the Crystal Pool. This was a really popular spot. It had a diving pool, a sand beach. There was a little First Aid shed, and a whole locker room area. But it was really big, and just fantastical as well. So there was interesting woodwork that we had a little bit of that repaired. There was some clay tile roofing, and obviously this fun entry to the locker room.
And then the Midway, the old Midway, that had the shooting gallery and the carnie games, that kind of thing. It was housing, or it still is, actually, the Adventure Theater. When we got here the Adventure Theater, I think the building was the adventure. The roof was leaking. There were these catwalks and mezzanines that were very precarious. But now the adventure mostly takes place on stage, and the audience is safe.
Again, we used color samples on the old targets and the stucco to replicate the original colors that they had used on these buildings. The neon was renovated. The neon housings are all the old housing. They had to patch some of it, but, basically … They had most of the actual neon tubing. There were a couple of pieces … I think the lines on the Crystal Pool needed to be rebuilt, but the actual letters were still there to be refurbished.
Anyway, this sort of image is sort of the backdrop for all the wonderful events that take place at the park now. And you can go and you can see the old shooting gallery. You can’t shoot guns, but you can see the dented up targets that are memorialized in the arcade. And then that building also houses theater and a puppet company. And then they become sort of nodes on the site for events. When they do a festival, oh yeah, you can go down to this station at the Crystal Pool and see so and so performing, that kind of thing. It really creates a wonderful environment that is good for making memories.
Looking forward, right now we are working on getting funding through the National Park Service and matching grants from the partnership to finish the restoration of the carousel. So the plan is to rebuild the band organ room, which will be a lot of fun. The gentleman who repairs the band organ room lives in Baltimore, and he’s one of three in the world who actually know how to fix these things. And I really want him to get an apprentice, because that art is going to fade. But anyway, he has come down and has a plan for how he’s going to move it out of the way so we can rebuild that structure and make it secure for generations to come. Fire safing for the gears and workings of the mechanical in the center of the carousel itself. And as you can see, there are structural problems with rotting beams and that sort of thing. So we’re going to be fixing those up. So anyway, we’re looking forward to that starting soon. That’s a pretty exciting project, and always gives me an opportunity to go down to the park, which I love.
Basically, the point is that the original vision for this space to give people a place to go, experience arts and culture, and sort of feel a little bit of peace from the surrounding environment, a vacation for the day. That lives on at Glen Echo Park. And though how that has manifested itself has changed over the years the park has been very successful at being an attraction.