Hidden in Plain Sight: The McMillan Reservoir Sand Filtration Site
BYT at large | May 19, 2014 | 9:00AM |

By Jonny Grave

There’s really nothing down here. There’s just sand, brick, and the tiniest flickers of sunlight from the cracks in the walls. There’s an eerie quiet, too. The space I’m in is exactly one acre square, which you’d think would have some kind of echo. Instead, the sand under my feet swallows sound like the toxins it absorbed from the reservoir’s drinking water in the the early 1900’s. What I am doing is extremely dangerous and extremely illegal.

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The McMillan Reservoir Sand Filtration Site is a decommissioned water treatment plant located on North Capitol, in between Michigan and Channing. If you’re at all familiar with the history of the district, you may have heard of Senator James McMillan, the father of the 1901 Plan. He envisioned a return to the grandeur and glory of Pierre L’Enfant’s design, but with a more functional purpose. Burnham, Olmstead, McKim, Moore… these are all names you might see when reading about the how this city was planned out and rebuilt. McMillan was the only lawmaker among them– it was he who took the design, proposed it to Congress, and got it passed.

The old plant used a slow sand filter to turn the reservoir’s surface water into drinkable water. All that was required was a lot of sand and a lot of time. The Army Corps of Engineers operated the site, which supplied most of Northwest’s drinking water. But instead of leaving the sand pits wide open, the city planners covered the area in a blanket of grass, and turned the site into a public park. Functional, strategic, highly complex, but beautiful.

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Girl Scouts had a garden on the southern end of the park. Boys would play ball on the rolling fields. The view includes the Basilica, the Capitol, and Howard University’s bell tower. And the sunsets are staggering. This was an impossibly gorgeous space, wide open for the citizens of the District to enjoy.

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Then, the Second World War came around… District officials and the Army Corps of Engineers were worried about enemies sabotaging the drinking water, and the site was swiftly shut down. It’s been closed to the public ever since.

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Under the small, slow hills of what used to be a tremendous public park, there are acres upon acres of nothing but sand. The odd footprint of a construction worker here, the odd spiderweb there… but otherwise nothing but darkness, soft sand, and quiet. Here was once a mighty meeting of beaux-arts architecture and Army-grade construction. Now, nothing but peace beneath the city.

Contracts have been traded back and forth for years. No one knows when the citizens can return to the park.

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