“It was an opportunity to fix up the park,” says John Richardson, founder of the Friends of Volta Park, matter-of-factly. “It’s been great fun.”
On June 10, the group will celebrate its 20th anniversary at its annual cocktail party at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School.
In 1996, the all-volunteer nonprofit began working with the neighborhood and the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to maintain and improve Volta Park’s grounds and gardens. It may be hard to believe, but 20 years ago it took some convincing around town that this idea made sense and could work.
“The park looked like an abandoned freight yard 20 years ago, when Marion Barry was mayor,” Richardson recalls. Friends met every Monday and started picking up trash, trimming overgrown greenery and planting — and they wanted to keep it going. The group was the first private partnership with the parks department.
Located along 34th Street between Volta Place and Q Street, Volta Park dates to 1769. The land was originally used as a cemetery, “where nearly 3,000 people were buried, including soldiers from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812,” as well as the first mayor of Georgetown, according to the nonprofit. Most were disinterred from the old Presbyterian Burial Ground, but many bodies remain buried. The wrecked cemetery became a park more than 100 years ago.
Why the name Volta? It’s the name of the street, which is named after the Volta Bureau, built by telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, one block to the west. In 1880, France awarded Bell the Volta Prize, named after Alessandro Volta, inventor of the electric battery.
One of the more famous photos of the park depicts Senators Jack Kennedy, Mike Mansfield and Scoop Jackson playing baseball during the 1950s. Twenty years ago, however, history was not on Volta Park’s side. The park was a mess, and the pool and recreation center were closed.
“It took a bit of education,” recalls Richardson, who talked to a lot of local groups, including the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and the Citizens Association of Georgetown. A few were afraid that changing the park might even lead to the land being sold for houses.
The group’s first big donor was Remy Chapman, who at first gave $100, and then — after seeing the disappointment on Richardson’s face — called him at home and gave $10,000.
Richardson, a general contractor who has renovated hundreds of houses in town, appreciates the wide support, he says, “of the 1,000 people or groups that have donated — with three-fourths at modest amounts,” to the Friends group. “Consistent supporters are real estate agents Nancy Taylor Bubes and Michael Rankin, as well as 1789 Restaurant, part of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, and Visitation Prep.”
He is also quick to name Patsy Guyer, Connie Haynes and Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans as big boosters, and to list the group’s founding board members: Sally Davidson, Barbara Downs, Helen Hagerty, Beverly and Peter Jost, Mary Mottershead and Bob Moore, Rory and Clare Quirk, Betsy and Charlie Rackley, Gigi and Garrett Rasmussen, Nina Richardson and Diane Salisbury.
For the park, there’s been no change in use. The recreation building, playground, pool, baseball field and tennis courts are all there — just all fixed up. Each year, thousands of families use those facilities. Special events include CAG’s Concerts in the Park during the summer; Volta Park Day, held in October; and Breakfast with Santa, held in December, naturally.
Since 1996, the Friends of Volta Park says, it “has been responsible for all landscape maintenance of the park’s grounds and gardens. It also worked closely with D.C. Councilman Jack Evans’s office to renovate and reopen the pool and recreation building in 2005.”
In 2013, the playground was redone, with most of the money coming from DPR, although the Friends pitched in. Annual fund contributions, usually around $50,000, are reserved for maintenance needs, says past president Mimsy Lindner. “Our expenditures have to do with landscape, maintenance, maybe a bench or toys and, of course, Volta Park Day.”
“It was John Richardson who asked me to help with Volta Park Day and to join the board,” says Lindner. “Soon, John retired as president (after 10 years), and I took over. It was an easy transition, as John has not really gone away, and to this day he and I are still quite involved.”
Succeeding Steven Barentzen, Kristen Lever and Kellee Glass are now the group’s co-presidents. They foresee opening up the park to a few more activities, like art shows.
Lever and her husband John moved to Georgetown in 2004 and lived on 33rd Street near the park. They would go to the park and read a book, take a swim. Her motivation is as simple as that of the first Friends members. “We want to make sure the park remains beautiful,” she says.
For Glass, work during her Q Street home renovation revealed part of the park’s history: human bones from its time as a burial ground.
With more young people getting involved, it looks like the maintenance — and the fun — will continue for Volta Park. It is a “green oasis in the heart of Georgetown,” the group likes to say, and that’s because of a lot of caring and hard work.