Nestled between MacArthur Boulevard and the Clara Barton Parkway and only a five-minute drive from our nation’s capital, lies a little piece of local history and an active and vibrant artistic community. Glen Echo Park serves as host to numerous classes, dances (including contra dances, as previously covered by DC Focused), and a monument to a rich local past.
The Baltzley brothers established Glen Echo thanks in large part to the fortune brought in by Edwin Baltzley’s egg beater patent. The brothers purchased 516 acres in 1888 to build a large real estate development: Glen-Echo-on-the-Potomac was to help D.C. rival cities on the Rhine like Cologne, Basel, Strasbourg, Utrecht, and more. Originally conceived as a suburban area stretching from Cabin John Creek to the Potomac, the Baltzleys adapted their vision to include the popular adult education movement of the time – the National Chautauqua Assembly. The National Chautauqua of Glen Echo was founded in 1891 at Glen Echo Park. By 1899, the park featured an amphitheater, several amusement park rides, a dance pavilion, and a building erected for the American Red Cross.
However, by 1903, the National Chautauqua of Glen Echo foreclosed and the grounds were sold. A stone tower stands today as a testament to the park’s original ideals. The Washington Railway and Electric Company, which operated a trolley from D.C. to Glen Echo, purchased the site in an effort to increase ridership. Trolley parks, amusement parks linked to urban areas by trolleys, sprouted across the nation: Electric Park in Kansas City, Riverside in Chicago, and Willow Grove in Philadelphia. Glen Echo Amusement Park boomed, as its remaining art deco buildings testify. Crystal Pool opened in 1931. The iconic Spanish Ballroom opened in 1933. Though by 1950, attendance had dwindled as larger, regional theme parks grew in popularity. For the next decade, the park remained a mostly summertime destination, with few popular attractions.
In 1960, the park’s long-time policy of segregation collided with the civil rights movement. Howard University protesters who had successfully fought to integrate lunch counters in Arlington, Virginia turned their efforts toward the park. The Nonviolent Action Group, led by Laurence Henry, gathered at the entrance of the park on June 30. They were joined by residents of the neighboring Bannockburn community. After a summer of protests, the park was opened to all for the 1961 season. But on Easter Monday 1966, a series of sudden closures of rides by white operators appeared motivated by racist sentiments (and part of a historical trend of segregated recreation), riots broke out at the park as refunds were denied and bus transportation from the park was suspended. The riots made national news. Two years later, according to the National Park Service, “with racial tensions high at Glen Echo Park in the 1960s and other—more profitable—real estate development options available, the last owners chose to close the amusement park in 1968 and seek zoning clearance to build an apartment complex on the site.”
In 1970, the federal government acquired Glen Echo Park (in exchange for a parcel of land at 1711 New York Ave N.W.), making it a national park. Since then, renovations and improvements have enabled the park to prosper again as a place for the arts and education. Today, the infamous Crystal Pool exists only as an art deco sign and grassy ruins. But one can still learn how to dance the bossa nova, make pottery, or blow glass along the banks of the mighty Potomac River – albeit without the original Chautauqua affiliation.
All images © Beau Finley except for the patent and Lorie Shaull’s photo. You can see more of his work on his flickr page. If you’d like, you can contact him: beaufinley at google’s email service.