This presentation is part of the online document Acknowledging Landscapes: Presentations from the National Register Landscape Initiative.
Danny Schaible: My name is Danny Schaible. I was previously a cultural resources specialist with the National Capital Region. I actually just recently took a new position with National Capital Parks East as a project manager, but this is a project that I worked on while I was a cultural resources specialist at the National Capital Region. It was a visual resource inventory and assessment of the northern portion of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. It’s actually a project that I’m still working on that I should have closure on sometime within the next few months.
For those who are unfamiliar with the George Washington Memorial Parkway, if you’re in the DC area it’s something you may drive on very frequently. If you’re not, you may not know about it, but it is a road that dates to the 1920s. It’s a scenic road that was intended to connect Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation, with the Great Falls of the Potomac, which is maybe 35 miles north of Mount Vernon.
The build out of the road took maybe 45 years, and it was actually never completed as it was originally envisioned. The northern terminus wound up being the beltway that circumnavigates the district, rather than the Great Falls of the Potomac, but the area that my project specifically worked on was the northern portion of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, between Spout Run and the roads terminus at the beltway. This section of the parkway was built out in the 1950s and 1960s and it roughly about 7 miles of lane.
The background for this project, the genesis of this project, started about 10 years ago. There was planned rehabilitation of this section of the northern parkway. Within that rehabilitation they were looking to do everything from repaving the road, and also reconsidering some of the safety features along the road, including what you can see in this picture, the historic stone masonry guard wall.
It was that aspect that wound up becoming controversial. The historic guard wall is, in areas, as low as 9 inches tall, but typically between about 9 and 18 inches, and the replacement guard wall to meet kind of minimum ASTA standards along a parkway with travel speeds in the 60 mile per hour range was to be 27 inches tall. Twenty-seven compared to 9, that’s three times the height in some locations for the guard wall, not to mention loss of original historic fabric, because the guard wall was going to be reinforced concrete with stone cladding. That wound up in many ways forcing the park to reconsider this project, and at least acquiring more information and more data on the importance of vistas before they moved forward with the project.
My involvement did not begin 10 years ago. I became involved in this project maybe a year and a half ago, and that was kind of deliberate to bring someone who hasn’t been entrenched in this project for a long time, and kind of give it a fresh set of eyes.
There’s bound to be some overlap with Mark Meyers presentation, but I think that’s a good thing because that’s one way that we learn is through repetition, so some of the points he touched on I will be reinforcing with my presentation, but visual resources, why do they matter?
It’s something that unlike other types of resources the National Park Service, this is what Mark is actively working on now, is to try to come up with a methodical way for assessing visual resources, and come up with something that we can use as a template for the various property types that we have, and situations that we encounter.
It’s hard to do any PowerPoint presentation within the park service without bringing the Organic Act into it, but we’ve got, it’s right in there, fortunately for scenery lovers. We’ve got the Organic Act that says the purpose of the National Park Service is to conserve scenery. Hard to find a better directive than that. You can also look at things like enabling legislation for the George Washington Memorial Parkway. It’s reinforced there to preserve the natural scenery. For this park unit it’s kind of a double whammy that we’ve got both of those things really emphasizing the importance of scenery, and the preservation of scenery.
How do you assess scenery? It’s kind of a difficult thing to assess, but there’s been a lot of work that’s been done, and again, Mark Meyer is really trying to work on something that we can use interchangeably in kind of a starting point for us to begin assessing vistas in all of our park units. When I did collaborate with Mark Meyer on this project, but I was … The process that he is still actively working on is in kind of a beta mode now. Now this is work that I did a couple of years ago, so although we consulted, his methodology that he had at that point wasn’t quite as flushed out as it is now, and even now, it’s still kind of in a testing capacity.
I’d had some vista experience before. I previously worked at Yosemite, and I worked on a vista plan for Yosemite, and what I wound up with something that was kind of a hybrid version that incorporated some of the ideas that were still, I guess rough coming out of Mark’s shop in Denver, along with things that had been used at Yosemite, and other park units, to assess vistas, but these basic things … anything you come up with you want it to try to capture the intangible qualities that make something scenic. You want it to be replicable, that if you did it multiple times, you come up with similar results. You want it to be transparent, something that can be follow-able, something that you can demonstrate that you went about it in an objective process that makes sense for the resource. You want it to be objective and not driven by any predetermine management objectives, and ultimately you want something that will produce a rank of the scenic value for various areas that you’re looking at, so something that will have value to park manager in terms of making decisions.
For the VRA model, visual resource assessment model, Blue Ridge Parkway, Mark mentioned them, they did really, I’d say cutting edge work for the park service back in the 1990s, especially helpful for me because I was working on a parkway myself. It’s a bit different assessing vistas from a road, than it is from a stationary viewpoint. Also, Yosemite National Park, I got to work on that project while I was there. It’s really the Air Resources Division of the Denver Service Center. Mark Meyer’s group, they’ve been calling themselves the Scenery Conservation Program, doing very exciting work.
This is our team that we had when we were out on the parkway. This is one of our bridges. Bridges, because of the change in topography, tended to be natural areas where you’d have vistas, but this was our group, and we did not, although you can’t see any cars whizzing by in the photo, cars were whizzing by. It was sometimes a bit nerve racking, especially the first few before you got a little bit used to it, but we had to come up with something that could be done quite quickly, because of our exposure on the parkway, and something that could be done without that much time, but also we had a different approach as well in that everyone was conducting their assessments individually. Although I was there to answer questions, and I’d answer them so that everyone could hear, people filled out their own forms and then I got all of the forms back from the individuals that were involved in the project, and then averaged everything.
The team was very interdisciplinary. We had people from federal highways. We had park service people. We had park volunteers. It was something that could be explained and communicated to people varying levels of professional involvement. Really, people that had no previous involvement in this type of work were on our team.
All in all, we had 38 identified vistas. It was 7 miles of parkway that we were looking at, but really all of the vistas were in the lower 3 miles of that parkway, so they’re all compacted within the lower 3 miles of that parkway, where the parkway is very close to the Potomac River. We had some vistas, about half the vistas, well there were north bound vistas and south bound vistas. Those were assessed separately, and then there were views that could be seen during the summer, when all of the trees were still holding their leaves. Those were our open vistas, and then there were vistas that could only be seen in the winter, when the tress had dropped their leaves, and those were our filtered vistas. We had to go through and assess at two different junctures.
We then got scores for all of those vistas, and of those 38 vistas, I think it was roughly 7 to 8, if you average them out that would have been the highest scoring vistas. Those we gave them moniker superior quality. The next 20% were high quality, and we had medium, low, and very low quality vistas along here. For the purposes of the treatment that I also prepared for the parkway, it was only those vistas in the superior and high classes that received individual treatment recommendations.
This gives you a bit of an idea as to what some of those vistas might look like, kind of representative examples of the different scenic classes. Superior vistas tended to have wide spacious open views of the Potomac, and often something like a charismatic complimentary feature within the view shed as well, in this case it’s the top left, it’s Georgetown University. I think that the Healy Clock Tower it’s called, but something that provides additional focal point and visual interest. High category vistas would again have a nice view of the Potomac Gorge. They may not include nice unobstructed view, typically of the Gorge, but probably would not have sort of a built feature that would further compliment it, and then as you go down from there, you’ve got sort of receding levels of con activity to the river, and the view aperture tends to not be as open for the less scenic vistas.
Again, don’t have time to get into all of the things we looked at. This is an example of a category that we looked at assessing scenic quality, with uniqueness. The more unique a vistas was, so long as it was unique kind of in a good way of things that you want to see that are characteristic of things you would like to see along the parkway, the greater this category would score. If it was something that could only be seen in one location, perhaps it’s a bridge that you get to see from only one viewpoint, that would be a highly unique view, that would score good in this category, or like the top right picture shows, that’s the first vistas that you can see of the Washington Monument heading south bound. That’s sort of an important one there. If you get to see if for the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth time it’s still the same monument, but you’re a little bit desensitized to it at that point. That first glimpse you get is important in that capacity.
This one I’m going to spend more time talking about because it’s probably the greatest interest to everyone that’s involved in the conference call today. It’s also the one that I spent the most time on, and that was kind of the most difficult one to assess, and that’s what we called historic vista. This section of the parkway opened, was dedicated in 1961. I think construction actually began in the late 50s, 57, but we considered it historic if it was something that would have been opened when the parkway was dedicated in 1961, and we also … Beyond whether it was just opened, we wanted to see if there was a history of maintaining this vistas, because a lot of these openings have been maintained over the years. If we could find documentation or evidence that it had been maintained, then that was of greater value than if it was perhaps coincidentally open when the parkway opened in 1961.
This took a lot of work. This was something that was very important to the park and something we wanted to get too. Ultimately it was just one of the categories that was scored along with maybe 6 or 7 others, but this was one that I spent probably more time working on than the other categories combined. This is some historic photo assessment work that was done trying to locate where those historic vistas were. It would have been great if we just had a single map that showed us where all the historic vistas were. In this case we didn’t, so we had to do a lot of investigation to try to find where all those historic vistas were.
The red lines and the numbers, those are guard walls. The bottom right, the guard walls weren’t even constructed yet, but we could tell that’s where they were going. Google Earth was actually very helpful in locating all of these. The curvature of the road, the various guard walls, and we had maybe 50 photos from around the time that the parkway was constructed to show where vistas would have been located, and then we took those photographs that we had and compared them to existing conditions, but again, not entirely satisfactory independent of other sources because we didn’t have the entire north parkway. We didn’t have a photographic record of the entire north parkway, so we used what evidence we did have.
This is another thing that we looked at, historic aerial photography. This one in particular was probably the most useful in that it was done when the road was graded, when that north parkway was actually being graded, and you can see the areas on the fill side of the road that show where they had to grade and where they had to remove substantial amounts of vegetation. Take up in the northern part, take V, you can see that divot that comes out of D, which suggests that area did not have vegetation immediately adjacent to the road, which suggests that was an open area when the road opened. We can look at subsequent years too. Often varying levels of resolution, et cetera, sometimes it got a bit difficult to read the tea leaves on this, but to kind of get an indication as to whether that area had been maintained over the years as well.
Another thing that we looked at, now this was perhaps the Rosetta Stone, something we were excited to find at first, but again, ultimately it had many, many problems. This is five individual maps that are tiles together here so that they can be read a bit. Again, it’s pretty small, but it’s annotated. The red annotations are my notes. This was a map that I prepared that went in the actual report, but they’re pointing to notes that are on the map. What the red arrows are pointing to are areas that include annotation. That annotation was written in pencil. This was a pencil map that was prepared by somebody. Ultimately, perhaps, maybe to be finalized, likely never finalized, but this was supposed to locate where the maintain vistas were along the parkway.
Unfortunately it was never finalized, and a lot of the notation appears to be inaccurate. We’ve got areas that say open vista, when you go out and look at that open vista, it’s actually a berm that’s 15 high where you’d be able to see nothing from the parkway. Then you have to start wondering, what did they mean the open vista was on either side of these arrows, or was this area regraded? Unlikely. Was this just … There’s another one as you move down that calls out these vistas, vistas that are actually still there, and then parenthetically it says disregard. Well, what do you make of that? There’s just problems with this that the more we looked at it, the less confidence it gave us that this was something that, while supporting in some cases it did line up well, nothing that we could use and say here are the historic conditions that we want to go with.
Taking into consideration all those sources, and other sources, we finally wound up with kind of a composite of where the historic vistas were along the parkway, as best we could tell. This was then overlaid with the contemporary vistas to inform that one scoring criteria of historic vista. Quite time consuming. Ultimately good, but again, even with this work I don’t think we had the full support of the cultural resource program managers, I know we didn’t, at George Washington Memorial Parkway, who still had some issue with this in that some vistas that maybe there was a historic vista that had entirely grown in.
Well how do you do an assessment of that? If you can no longer see anything from that vista area, how do you assess its scenic qualities? That’s an issue that hasn’t really been resolved with this methodology – if there’s no longer anything there to assess it.
Other issues were just sort of the waiting, and I think maybe Mark got this a bit better, but the waiting between historic and sort of aesthetic. You try to kind meld those two in this type of assessment, but there’s different ways of weighting that. I think there was some feeling that the work that was done on the north parkway, maybe emphasized aesthetic over historic too much.
Just down to the last couple of slides, but we also included treatment recommendations. This was unlike most of the parkway, which was moving, non-stationary vistas. There were a couple overlooks. This is the treatment recommendations for one overlook. Tried to get in and show individual trees, itemize individual tress, in terms of considering what the impacts would be. Identifying the species of those tress, and their DBH, whether they needed to be pruned, whether they needed to be removed, and then also if it was kind of low DBH (diameter at breast height), groupings of kind of small younger trees, then I would just show that as kind of a massing. This was something I wanted to include just to make it most useful and implementable for those various areas. Again, it was only the superior and the high scenic class vistas that I provided this level of information for.
Cath LeFranc: You started out talking about the rehab project that involved the wall. Then you start talking about identifying the different views. I wonder if you could relate that back to the original project that involved the wall. How did that relate to the wall project?
Danny: Yeah. I think I mentioned that this project had been going on for a number of years before I became involved. The federal highways in collaboration with George Washington Memorial Parkway had already identified which guard walls would require additional height and it was most of them. In some of them, they identified guard walls that were areas where they could maybe compromise on that height, so on areas where maybe they don’t need 27 inches, maybe they can go 22 inches … Something like that. Areas that did have some flexibility based on the geometry of the road.
I deliberately just didn’t remain objective. I didn’t see any of that. In fact, I’ve never really looked at it. I didn’t want that to influence my process in assessing these vistas and what their scenic value was. The guard walls were often associated with a few. There areas that might have a steep grade on the other side, which is why they had a guard wall there in the first place, which would make it easier to not have the vegetation in that location or where you have to do limited amount of vegetation management to afford a vista. The guard walls typically were associated with vistas. Aside from that, I wasn’t looking at what federal highways and George Washington Memorial Parkway had worked out in terms of compromises, give and take for the different guard walls. Does that answer your question?
Cath: Well, yes and no. It raises more. Then, what was the purpose of your project if it didn’t have to do with the guard rail, or wall?
Danny: Well, okay. It did have to do with the guard walls in that with the information that I provided, I didn’t include it, but basically all of the different view corridors … For this, you’re looking at corridors and not view points. The vistas range from maybe as little as 100 feet. If you’re moving 55 miles an hour, which is above the speed limit, you’re going to experience that pretty quickly. Some of them were over 1,000 feet in length where you have a consistent view for a long time, you might see for as long as 15 seconds while you’re driving along the parkway. For each of those areas that I provided an assessment with, the park, that will help inform those trade-offs and that conversation between the parkway and between the engineering team that will work on the design for the rehabilitation, as to where are the most important vistas and what areas should you be most concerned at from a scenery management perspective when they’re talking about adding something to it that might reduce the range of that vista.
Cath: Okay. My larger question would be, aren’t the stone walls an important character defining feature of the parkway in and of themselves? We once did assessment for the Taconic Parkway and we took it feature by feature and we matched those features with the areas of significance like how important is design to the areas of significance of transportation and recreation and then we ended up ranking the features as to how important they were to conveying significance. In that case, stone walls would be an element of design that, in and of themselves would be important, not just where they framed vistas.
Danny: Yes. Absolutely. Section 106-wise, it’s going to be an adverse effect no matter what. The guard walls themselves, as a roadside feature are historic, are important, do convey craftsmanship and a design for a parkway of that era. So yes, they are. I’ve worked on other projects with guard walls too. This is something that the park service is grappling with all over, wherever we have NPS properties.
Cath: I guess my point is slightly different. It’s that you’re supposed to be looking at them too. They’re not just an element of the design. They’re part of the view that has been created for you. When there’s no large view, when you just have a small view with the trees and the wall, it’s maybe more important than when you have a large view to look at it. That’s a small design view, rather than a large design view … the contrast of open and closed. Just a thought.
Danny: Yeah. Since you’re experiencing these vistas from your car and cars you’re lower in height … In some ways, we’ve got some criticism on that with this process too that you can see from that picture where we’re all standing on the bridge, that was an approximation of the view you’d get from your car, but unless you’re maybe driving a big rig or something like that, you’re not going to be that high off the ground in your car seat. You’re also not going to be on the shoulder as we were for your vista as well and is it a good approximation? Those are all valid criticisms, but again, we tried to do our best.
Cath: No, you had a specific assignment. I was just throwing that out for consideration. I don’t know how other people feel about it, but it’s just that I was thinking those walls are a design element that is part of the view. That’s part of what you see. I’ll drop it.
Danny: I know. I appreciate your point.
Catherine Smith: This is Catherine Smith. I’m the National Register/National Historic Landmarks Coordinator for the National Capital Region and Danny’s colleague. I just wanted to add to what Danny was talking about that his report or portions of his report are now with a consultant who is updating the National Registrar Nomination for the parkway. We’re going to grapple with all of these. I appreciated the previous questioner’s comments. I think the important things for us to capture in that nomination are the character of the different views as well as Danny’s really great work on the historic views and where they have been maintained and where they have not. All of that can be captured in the nomination as well as the structures and constructed portions of the parkway. Stay tuned. That nomination is really a two-year project and we’re only probably three quarters of the way through the first year. More to come.
John Mark Joseph: I was curious about the Holy Grail map along the parkway there, and the berms that you found, and I was just wondering, I know that people used to make berms in places that they weren’t preserved to later perhaps do a, perhaps a pull over or something like that, and I was wondering if those berms were looked at any closer to see if perhaps they were actually a focus point for a pull over on the road. Of course, I was curious of what the speed limit was in 1961 when it was developed and opened.
Danny: Yeah, we did look at … That was actually something that was very confusing for us, because it was a draft map, there was no real legend, and there was a lot of interpretation that we had to put into it. Those areas that had the berms, that was something that we considered, but it was reinforced in some historic photographs that they weren’t historically berms. Excuse me, the opposite, that they were historically berms, and that the map appeared to be an error, or in needing of greater information to really show that it was the areas opposite where the notion was that said “Open Vista” that were really intended to, that really were the open vistas. Could you give me your second question again, I seem to have lost it?
John Mark: My aspect was what was the speed limit in 1961 of traveling the road?
Danny: It was slower. The speed limit has increased there. I can’t remember it, 55 posted now. People generally travel faster than that. I think historically it was 45, maybe 50, and that’s a real, still, point of contention. The parkway managers want to maintain a low speed limit, but since the road is a commuter road, that’s a difficult thing to enforce, and it becomes political. They talked about putting in speed cameras, but there’s political opposition to doing that, and the enforcement along the parkway is spotty, so you generally have vehicles traveling in excess of the speed limits, sometimes grossly in excess of the speed limit.
There was a somewhat of a political power who had a relative die on the parkway, and a lot of this pressure to come down and revisit those safety features has to do with, you know, we’re in the capital, so everything is political. I hope that answered your question.