Montrose Park to Celebrate Sphere’s Return
By November 3, 2022 3 916•
Two years ago, it was a case of whodunit at Montrose Park, a verdant 16-acre meadowland of shade trees and gardens situated on the heights of upper Georgetown. While not quite on the level of a suspenseful crime novel, this was a case of the missing armillary sphere (sundial) that normally is perched atop the Sarah Rittenhouse memorial. While the culprit was never caught, the sphere was discovered in nearby bushes and repairable.
Last week, the sphere was reinstalled by the National Park Service — Montrose’s overseers — as well as the Friends of Montrose Park, which supervised its repair, courtesy of funding from the Georgetown Garden Club.
There will be a celebration of the armillary sphere’s return, 3 to 5 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 6., at the park’s entrance on R Street.
This was not the sphere’s first encounter with orb-hungry bandits. In 1969, it was stolen and left in a row of azalea bushes in front of the old Washington Star press office on Pennsylvania Avenue. How it wound up at the Star instead of its morning rival, the Post, remains a mystery.
The limestone pedestal memorializes Sarah Louisa Rittenhouse (1845-1942), an early proponent and founder of Montrose Park who saved it from residential development in the early 1900s. Affectionately known as “Loulie” to friends and neighbors, her monument is centered in a circular ellipse of rose bushes and other ornamental vegetation. It serves as the park’s official entrance at 3052 R St. NW. Beyond this entry lies a pastoral grassland surrounded by a line of mature trees. The park itself borders Dumbarton Oaks Park, a network of forested Rock Creek trails, to the north, Dumbarton Oaks Museum & Gardens to the west and Oak Hill Cemetery to the east.
Having recently celebrated its 121st anniversary, Montrose Park’s history mirrors much of the surrounding area.
From 1804 to 1911, it was a private estate under several owners. With the town’s thriving seaport, the property’s initial owner, Richard Parrott, was a local captain of industry who made ropes for commercial ships and frigates. His legacy is found in the tree-shaded lantern-lined Ropewalk Path that visitors enjoy today. Other Parrott legacies include building a federal style mansion and opening part of his property and adjacent woods for public use.
Subsequent owners added other popular landscape features, several of which remain today including the Boxwood Gardens and Summerhouse. The brick-trellised pergola was added in the early 20th Century, after the federal government purchased the park.
According to Joan Zenzen in Rock Creek Administrative History, Mary McEwen Boyce purchased the property in the late 1830s, which her husband William later inherited. It was William Boyce who named it “Montrose” after a Scottish relative, the Earl of Montrose. Though the Boyce heirs held this land until the 1890s, Montrose was largely abandoned by the beginning of the 20th Century.
By then, its prime location beckoned developers as Georgetown residences expanded north. That is when Rittenhouse, a Georgetown native and daughter of a prominent local banker, launched her park preservation crusade. Though never married, Rittenhouse was active in social circles and envisioned this estate for recreation and neighborhood gatherings. Even before the Montrose home was demolished, the grounds’ expansive tree-shaded canopies beckoned visitors as it had for nearly a century. Some of those trees still exist. Others have been replaced by new generations of similar varieties—including Tulip Poplar, Oak, Dogwood, and Osage Orange. The latter variety, with its sinewy bark and protruding branches, forms a canopy along the Ropewalk Path which bisects the park from R Street past the pergola and children’s playground to the Rock Creek Park woods.
Rittenhouse’s impassioned perseverance paid off in March 1911 when Congress purchased Montrose for $110,000. Before the Park Service assumed management duties in 1933, the park was under stewardship of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds (OPBG), a branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. OPBG hired several prominent landscape architects—among them George Burnap and Horace Peaslee, designer of Montrose’s ellipse entrance, and a pivotal planner for Meridian Hill Park on 16th Street. Montrose benefitted by additional consulting from George Diggs and Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. These architects upgraded the prevailing landscape, added new varieties of trees and gardens and maintained a portion of the grounds’ original features from its private estate days. Peaslee’s and Burnap’s plans remain largely intact today.
Once the NPS assumed official management in the 1930s, the emphasis shifted from active (organized) recreation activities to a more passive variety. When the Georgetown Garden Club was formed in 1924, they became active partners with OPBG—and later NPS—to maintain Montrose and petition for various improvements. This included placement of the pedestal in 1956 honoring Rittenhouse and donating the illustrious (and apparently highly sought after) armillary sphere. As part of Burnap’s original plans from 1912, OPBG also installed gas light lamps along the Ropewalk Path. Today, flickering flames in those lamps remain the only ones in Washington still in continuous operation.
In 2004, the Park Service initiated a cultural landscape study for Montrose Park with a holistic approach for beautifying the grounds. Preserving the existing tree canopy was a major concern due to pest infestations, disease, and climate adaptations occurring over time. Selective tree replacements became an urgent necessity. In consultation with NPS officials and Casey Trees, a D.C.-based non-profit dedicated to protecting the city’s tree canopy, FOMP volunteers planted 50 new oak, poplar, and dogwood varieties.
Formed in 1980 together with a similar group for Dumbarton Oaks Park, FOMP and the Dumbarton Oaks Conservancy had an amicable split in 2010. According to Georgina Owen, a Georgetown resident and current FOMP president, the Montrose group became somewhat inactive until its revival five years ago.
“Working with the Park Service has energized us to think creatively and long term,” Owen said. “Given our park’s unique role for recreation, social gatherings and other community activities, we want to preserve and enhance this unique urban green space that Sarah Rittenhouse and other dedicated volunteers worked so hard to achieve.”
Owen added that two residents were instrumental in reenergizing FOMP. This coincided with joint FOMP—NPS efforts to showcase Montrose as both a park and community garden for the Georgetown and Burleith neighborhoods. “By 2017, two community advocates, David Dunleavy and Micki Leder, helped revive our group,” she said. “When David moved to London in 2018, I was left holding the ropes.”
One wonders if those ropes are descendants of the ones manufactured by Montrose’s original owner.