Putting the “park” in Takoma Park

Swimming in Sligo CreekSwimming in Sligo Creek

Seeking out the various parks and gardens around town provides more than a respite from steamy summer days or a chance to savor crisp fall afternoons. Each park has a story to tell and honors people worth remembering.
Here’s a quick tour of the stories behind the spaces, the gardens and the memorials.

Spring Park

The first official park came about in 1886 when city founder Benjamin Franklin Gilbert donated land around the natural spring at the eastern edge of town. The pure water that bubbled up from deep underground helped prompt Gilbert’s choice to turn this area into his suburban dream.  He assured the residents the water would remain free. Then the financial panic of 1891 forced him to sell access to a private company. When a fence appeared, the residents sued, and won.
For decades young and old came from all parts of the city for a drink of the cool refreshing water. And they did so right up to 1947 when the city declared the water contaminated and capped off the flow.

Although sealed, water still reached the surface creating a bog. Several years ago city gardener Mike Welsh gained permission to reopen the spring and create a wetlands habitat.  Normon Greene’s sculpture of Powhatan evokes the story (more legend than truth) that Pocohantas’ father stopped here and was healed of his battle wounds.

North Takoma

Gilbert’s second gift of parkland was along the railroad tracks at the corner of Takoma and Albany Avenues across from his grand hotel, which failed, morphing into Bliss Electrical School, and finally into Montgomery College.

Originally called North Takoma Park, the site became Washington Park in the 1930s and was the stage for many city political rallies. Thirty years later, Takoma Park’s Sister Cityaffiliation with a small town in Brazil led to a decade of student and cultural exchanges and another name change, in 1963, to Jequie Park.
The search for a place to honor Belle Ziegler, the city’s first Recreation Director, but also the driving force behind the city’s Independence Day celebration, led here, where it was agreed that her enthusiastic support for the Sister City Project made it fitting to rename the park again, this time for Ziegler.
One corner of this park is dedicated to Walt Penney, a beloved activist who was killed while biking along Sligo Creek Parkway in 2002.

Forest Park and more

In 1927, the town purchased land at Elm and Prince George’s Avenues, a couple blocks up from Spring Park. More than 50 years elapsed before additional land was purchased for small neighborhood playgrounds, including ones at Jackson & Boyd, Colby & Cherry and Toatley-Fraser on Eastridge off New Hampshire Avenue.

Sligo Creek

The earliest residents, clustered around the railroad station in the 1880s and 90s, didn’t have to give much thought to parkland. Trees abounded and a short hike away through the woods was Sligo Creek. Dozens of photographs in Historic Takoma’s archives attest to the popularity such outings: a family picnicking, a couple standing on a modest wooden bridge over the creek, skaters moving across the frozen ice, or three boys in summertime, waist deep in the same creek.
Efforts in 1900 to capitalize on the creek’s location failed miserably to make a success of Glen Sligo Hotel and Wildwood Resort (linked by trolley to Laurel Avenue a mile away).
Nearly a 100 years after two brothers of the prestigious Carroll family named the creek after their Irish home, another local landowner, Blair Lee of Silver Spring, offered a new idea.

The great-grandson of Francis Preston Blair, he set about to turn Sligo Creek into official parkland. The bridle path once frequented by his great-grandparents became Sligo Creek Parkway. Lee, from his perch in the Maryland State Senate, then orchestrated the purchase of the adjoining land from his friends, and created the bi-county Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) to oversee the new park. Over the years the Commission has created a string of playgrounds and pocket parks along the creek.

Rebecca Lilly
Rebecca Lilly

Lilly Park

One of those small parks, off Glenside Avenue overlooking Long Branch,warrants special notice. It commemorates Becca Lilly’s valiant battle with brain cancer before succumbing in 1997 at age 14. Her story was poignantly told in a five-part Washington Post series that remains archived on the web.

Opal Daniels

Opal Daniels

Opal Daniels Park

Today, M-NCPPC is in charge of more than just Sligo Creek – it controls all county recreation parks, 18 of which are inside the city of Takoma Park. One, Takoma Urban Park on Westmoreland and Carroll in the heart of Old Takoma, opened as part of the 1983 revitalization.

Another, on Hancock off Carroll Avenue, was named in recognition of Opal Daniels’ advocacy for more public parks. She and Belle were neighbors.

As if that isn’t complicated enough, Montgomery County schools also have jurisdiction over the parks within the city associated with schools.

Hodges Field

But before county jurisdiction took over, the city had been expanding beyond the first  cluster around the train station, eventually engulfing Hodges dairy farm, bound by Philadelphia, Maple, Ritchie Avenues and Piney Branch Road.

When Hodges sold land to the county in the early 1920s for an elementary school on Philadelphia Avenue, the city (not the county) acquired the adjacent land along what is now Holly Avenue for a ballfield and playground. When it became necessary to replace Takoma Park Elementary in the early 1970s, the new school was built on the old Hodges field and the school site became the new Hodges field.

Lee Jordan, center

Lee Jordan, center

Takoma Park Middle School

When a junior high school was carved out of the dairy farm in 1939, however, the county school board claimed its adjacent athletic field. Built over what was once Brashears Run, the field was dedicated in 1981 to Lee Jordan, the school janitor who spent more than 50 years organizing sports leagues for boys and girls, black and white and influenced several generations of parents and kids.

When the school was rebuilt in 1997, efforts were made to see that the winter sledding hill was preserved.

Ed Wilhelm

Ed Wilhelm

Takoma-Piney Branch Park

Long before Piney Branch Elementary, opened in 1971, facing Maple Avenue, Takoma Rec Center had occupied the higher ground between Grant Avenue and  Darwin. In addition to ballfields, a small Rec Center building (glass walls on three sides) was the scene for countless birthday parties, wedding receptions and summer kids activities before fire claimed it in the mid-1970s.

The field, long the traditional site for 4th of July fireworks, was increasingly hemmed in by the highrises along Maple, the new school, and the municipal building. In 1974, the fireworks display moved to Takoma Park Jr. High (Middle) School.
In 2001, another coach was honored when the field was named for Ed Wilhelm, who followed in the footsteps of Lee Jordan as organizer of local youth baseball and soccer leagues.

Takoma-SS Intermediate Field

The opening of Piney Branch Elementary eventually led to the closing of the school at Chicago and Philadelphia, across from Montgomery College. Built in 1924, it was briefly the local high school before Blair opened and demoted this school to intermediate status. Its demolition initially spared the gym, but that too was torn down and all that remains now is the basketball court.

Herman Heffner

Herman Heffner

Heffner Center

Up the steep slope of Ritchie Avenue, is one more park carved out of Hodges farm. It is the only park named for a city official. Herman Heffner was one of the early settlers, who helped organize the Volunteer Fire Department and served as City Councilman. He died of a heart attack in 1953 at age 81, and the Oswego section was named for him. In 1959, much of the park including the ballfield was covered over by the Public Works building and a small cement block community center was built across the street. The African American community on Ritchie mourned the loss of their baseball field.

Azalea Gardens

Early residents, many of them horticulturists for the federal government, put a great deal of effort into their home landscaping. Subsequent generations have continued the tradition.

The most visible result is the series of pocket parks along Philadelphia Avenue much of it the legacy of the Azalea Committee formed in 1962 to create Takoma Park as “Azalea City of the Nation

.” Azaleas were the life work of B.Y. Morrison, the city’s foremost gardener. His four decades of horticulture resulted in 450 new varieties and gave azaleas aleading role in landscaping. The Committee organized a decades-long campaign of growing and planting (thousands of plantings were given away to local residents) that laid the groundwork for the profusion of azalea blossoms that blanket  the city every year.
Be sure to take note the “Republican Voters Garden” and the “Democratic Voters Garden” intermingling at the southeast corner of Philadelphia and Maple. And the triangle at the corner of Philadelphia and Maple is now Memorial Garden with its centerpiece, the World War II Memorial, dedicated in 1957
A large garden honoring Frank White, one of Morrison’s collaborator, once  graced the front of the Municipal Building, but was relocated three blocks west to Piney Branch after the community center expansion.

The vast collection of Morrison’s azaleas are on display at the National Arboretum, where he was the first director. Morrison’s park hometown memorial garden is at Takoma Junction.

Thomas-Siegler Garden

The largest intact garden, on the grounds of the oldest home in town, became the center of controversy when it was targeted for a playground in 1984.  The Thomas Siegler garden and carriage house on Tulip Avenue had remained in the same family until it came up for sale in the 1980s. Local residents resisted efforts to turn it into a playground, negotiating for recognition of its historic status, and arranged for it to become a public garden under the control of the city.

Fittingly enough, the oldest official garden, the Gilbert Memorial Garden at Eastern and Piney Branch, celebrated the town’s founding father on the occasion of his 100th birthday in 1939. A 10-ton boulder was hauled from Sligo Creek to rest at the site and bears a bronze plaque.

Gilbert’s vision of Takoma Park as a sylvan suburb continues to be reinforced today, thanks to the efforts of citizens and city staff to create pockets of refuge in an urban landscape.

Learn more

Check out more images and stories in the newly-published Images of America: Takoma Park, from Arcadia Publishing. More than a century’s worth of photos tell the story of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Available from: Now and Then, Old Takoma and Historic Takoma at the Takoma Park Street Festival, Sunday October 2 or at www.historictakoma.org.

Diana Kohn is President of Historic Takoma, Inc., and co-author of the the new Images of America book.

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.

1 Comment on "Putting the “park” in Takoma Park"

  1. Therese Greenhow Robinson | September 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |

    This is such a wonderful and resourceful bit of history. But as a resident of Takoma Park for a little over 40 years and grew up in Hodges Heights, I would like to add a few things that Ms. Kohn missed with Mr Lee Jordan. I had the wonderful privilege to not only know Mr Jordan but attended the same schools with his grandchildren, was part of the Takoma Park Boys and Girls Club that he founded that was mixed black and white. Yes, Mr Jordan organized sports leagues but he was the one that found the first mixed (black and white) Boys and Girls Club in Takoma Park. Another thing about Mr Jordan that many do not know is that he was a member of the Negro Baseball League where his teammates were Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson just to name a few. I remember hearing stories he would share about Josh Gibson which something I share with folks who show interest about Mr Jordan’s story.

    Yes, Takoma Park is rich with history details like this is something I feel should not be missed by such a great man I call one of my Hero’s.

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