As boring as the name “McMillan Sand Filtration Site” sounds, it’s actually pretty cool.  Sure, it’s just an old water treatment plant near Howard University, but it was built back when water treatment plants were civic achievements.  Besides, in its current state it looks like someplace that Indiana Jones would feel at home.

The Filtration Site was completed in 1905 and heralded as a public health milestone.  The city’s water supply would no longer be cleaned by chemicals, but instead by a then-super modern sand filtration system.  The plant is credited with helping stop the endemic typhoid epidemics of the time (our forefathers did build this city in a swamp), as well as helping to curb some other unpleasant waterborne illnesses.   Suffice it to say that the term “Delhi Belly” could have been synonymous with “District Diarrhea” before this baby was built.

Originally, the Filtration Site was designed to double as a public park.  The idea at the time was to build a “necklace of emeralds” around the city — basically a bunch of large parks that were connected by trails surrounding the city.  It’s important to remember that way back in the early 1900s, the idea of city planning was still cutting edge, and this was a step towards building a modern utopia.

The surface area of the Filtration Site featured a landscaped park with sculptures, promenades, and areas where you could meander in your carriage. The park was built around the series of concrete sand filtration towers and a ton of manholes, but people didn’t seem to mind.  There was even a large, pink granite fountain depicting three nymphs that was donated from the state of Michigan – weird, right?  Unsurprisingly, all of that is long gone, leaving only concrete towers in an overgrown field.

Public access to the park was short lived, and during World War II the army had the entire area fenced off because of fears that the Nazis would sabotage the city’s water supply.

The Filtration Site was finally replaced in 1985 when a new, faster and more modern filtration plant replaced it across the street.  The following year the Army Corps of Engineers decided to sell the land to developers for mixed commercial development and in 1987 the General Services Administration sold the property to the District of Columbia for just $9.3 million.

The District was supposed to facilitate the process developing the site, but since gaining ownership 26 year ago, not much has really happened.  There are proposed plans to turn the area into a mixture of houses, shopping and office space – though those plans piss off local neighborhood groups. There is also a plan by D.C. Water, which would use the site to help deal with flooding that occurs in the nearby area.  That plan would use some of the underground area to retain water, while the rest of the underground area would act as an access tunnel.

I’d like to hope that the city could come up with something a bit more imaginative to do with the space instead of turning it into yet another office park – maybe an underground art museum, or an underground answer to New York City’s Skyline Park.  Still, I suppose another boring glass tower is preferable to an empty, overgrown lot.


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