Glen Echo Park Revives With Aid From Friends
The National Arts Park serves as a social bellwether
GLEN ECHO PARK, MD. — Maryland's Glen Echo Park, on the outskirts of Washington, is the story of a community in formation, of social upheaval and of people coming together again. From its original conception as a religious retreat to its current status as a National Arts Park, Glen Echo reflects a century of demographic and social change that has swept across the country.
At Glen Echo Park, just three miles from the nation's capital, it's a typical Washington summer evening. The still air, thick with humidity, has brought gnats and mosquitoes out in full force.
But the warm weather has also drawn other visitors to the park. Couples stroll the grounds to cool off between calls at a Friday night square dance in the old Spanish Ballroom. Parents hoist their children up to big picture windows enclosing the idle but brightly lit carousel, where all ages are wide-eyed at the colorful giraffes, ostriches, horses, rabbits, and lions. ''The animals are asleep,'' explains a father to his little girl. ''We'll come back tomorrow, when the merry-go-round is open.''
By night the park appears all but abandoned, with the amusement-park rides shut down and the concessions, including the Candy Corner canteen, now boarded up and closed. But by day, the park is alive with children, picnickers, artists, dancers, puppeteers, and theater productions. And it buzzes with kiddie camps and adult classes from glass-blowing to tai chi.
From 1911 until it closed its turnstiles in 1968, Glen Echo was the site of one of the country's many amusement parks. Like Coney Island in New York and Atlantic City on the New Jersey shore, Glen Echo operated at the end of trolley lines on the outskirts of a major city.
There were many reasons for the demise of this and other trolley amusement parks. By the 1950s, disposable income was far greater than in the Depression and war years, and people were spending their money and time on other entertainment. The reliance on trolley travel vanished as commuters either accessed bus routes or drove their own cars, and people were moving to suburbs. Later, television kept a lot of people at home watching the box. And Walt Disney planners were developing their earliest theme parks.
But the most disturbing reason that Glen Echo Amusement Park closed was the ugliness surrounding the racial desegregation of the park. The 1960s were a watershed for civil rights in the US; the sleepy southern town of Washington and its environs was no exception.
For years, blacks could take the trolley car out to Glen Echo, but they were not permitted to enter because of the ''Whites Only'' policy. Maryland law did not prohibit segregation at private businesses.
During the summer of 1960, white residents of Bannockburn, a progressive community just across from the park, joined forces with blacks and picketed outside the park's gates. Five blacks were arrested after they broke the Jim Crow law by entering the park and staging a sit-in at the carousel.
Hyman Bookbinder still lives in Bannockburn, and has a strong recollection of those days. Sitting forward in his rocking chair, Mr. Bookbinder pulls out the picketing script he wrote to challenge white parkgoers. ''Jackie Robinson can't play at Glen Echo... '' it begins. ''How would you like to tell your children they cannot play at Glen Echo Park because you gave them the wrong color skin?'' Bookbinder did not allow his own teenage children into the park. Instead, they helped him, along with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, to distribute leaflets at the picket site.
In 1961, the Montgomery County Council forced Glen Echo to admit blacks. The park quietly announced the integration during that winter.
''One of the saddest things about this situation is that even though we changed things, afterward the whites didn't come to the park, and the blacks didn't either,'' Bookbinder says. ''But Glen Echo was a symbol. By 1960, much of Washington had already made some progress - major civil rights laws had already been passed in 1957 and in 1960. Yet 20 minutes from the White House, there was a park where blacks could not enter. And it took a community effort to remove the Jim Crow laws.''
All of the tension surrounding the park's integration seemed to rob many youths of the childhood fantasies that accompany a trip to the carousel, the Hall of Mirrors, and other adventures.
Trouble peaked in 1968 on Easter Monday, the park's opening day. Trying to control an overflow crowd, a ride operator closed one of the park's amusements, and then another, until all of the rides were shut down. Reports at the time and recollections today vary greatly as to just what happened.
Most agree that a number of black youths destroyed some park property. Their frustrations mounted once the park closed early, and there were not enough buses to transport them home. On their walk back to the city down tony Massachusetts Avenue, the youths threw rocks at houses and vandalized mailboxes. That was the amusement park's last season.
Surrounding the restored carousel today are remnants of another era: some crumbling buildings and partially renovated facades that remained after Glen Echo's 16 acres were taken over by the National Park Service in 1971.
Park ranger Sam Swersky oversees some 2,500 volunteers who show up at any given time to do everything from patching the grass roofs on huts occupied by artists to retooling old electric lights. Donations of time and money are essential to Glen Echo's existence, especially given congressional plans to make substantial cuts in the national parks budget.
Volunteers help run programs, plant gardens, and work to save facilities from their final stages of decay. Many dream of reviving the old amusements; others are content to preserve what is left.
There is the Dodgem pavilion, where bumper car drivers playfully dodged each other and often crashed. Next door still stands the canopy for the Cuddle Up ride, where cups on saucers once swirled their human contents. Across the way a rusted out, weed-overgrown shooting gallery is what's left of an old games arcade. The faded scenery and pock-marked targets still stand. Sloping down toward the Potomac River is the remaining three-story stucco facade of the Crystal Pool. The grand entrance, topped off by a midnight-blue neon sign, befits a facility where 3,000 people once splashed together and several hundred more could relax on a quarter-acre sand beach.
Near the worn silver lines of trolley tracks that once carried riders from Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue, through Georgetown, along the Potomac River, and up to Glen Echo, there is a solid reminder of Glen Echo's origins.
It is a great stone bell tower from Glen Echo's earliest construction begun in the late 1800s. Now used as an art gallery and repository for boxes of memorabilia, the tower was part of an architectural scheme put together by Edward and Edwin Baltzley, two brothers who intended to pour their profits from the popular Baltzley splatterless eggbeater into the area's first large real estate development.
First, the brothers built the immense Glen Echo Cafe - a rambling series of dining halls, alcoves, and bridges constructed from tens of thousands of cedar trees cut on site. This dining extravaganza was short-lived for Washingtonians who wished to escape the hustle-bustle and heat of the city; just months after the final touches were put on the cafe, it caught fire and burned to the ground.
Undaunted, the Baltzley brothers forged ahead with their plans to create a permanent community and a summer resort in Glen Echo. By 1891, they connected with the Chautauqua Assembly, a group of Protestant thinkers who were grappling with questions about humanity's physical and social origins as promulgated by Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. The Chautauquans chose the Glen Echo property as the site for their most ambitious venture.
There were hundreds of Chautauqua assemblies across the United States organized to teach Sunday school, management, and Bible study. But by establishing a presence in Glen Echo - which boasted an 8,000-seat amphitheater - the movement could draw its largest crowds ever.
Literature of the day describes the Chautauqua experience as a family attraction. With the railroad still incomplete, families traveled out to the site in wagons piled high with provisions, and pitched tents for their stay. In addition to a Victorian-style stone building complex to house the more permanent Chautauqua work and living areas, the Baltzleys created a speaker system and illuminated the grounds with electricity powered by a nearby creek.
Those enterprising brothers did all they could to welcome the Chautauquans ''to build a citadel of culture on the Potomac'' and provide plenty of potential homeowners.
The Baltzleys' sales of home sites were brisk. But just as the grand cafe was doomed, so was the Chautauqua facility at Glen Echo. Rumors of malaria in Glen Echo spread quickly, and by 1892 the park was all but dormant.
The area once chosen as a peaceful religious retreat was ultimately developed into a noisy amusement park dressed in bright lights and gaudy colors. The property changed hands many times at the turn of the century, but by 1911 the Washington Railway and Electric Company became the owner.
Like many American trolley parks, Glen Echo attracted visitors while providing its transit-company owners with income from fares. Advertised as a family resort, Glen Echo's opening day drew 15,000 visitors to the grand dance pavilion, miniature railway, and human roulette wheel. By the 1930s, the summer fun included the latest rides, a hair-raising roller coaster among them, and the majestic Crystal Pool.
Marshall Jacobs didn't live near a trolley line when he was a boy in the 1930s and '40s. That didn't matter. A couple of miles meant walking distance. ''Sometimes we'd hike out to Glen Echo as Boy Scouts. We'd go to the shooting gallery, get on those scary rides, and eat sticky apples and candy corn, and jump in that gigantic pool. When we were teenagers, that was the place to dance.''
But during World War II, Glen Echo felt many of the same shortages as the rest of the country. Hundreds of park employees enlisted in the armed services. With gasoline and ammunition in short supply, the gas-powered boats were discontinued and the shooting gallery closed. Youths improvised by throwing beanbags at a Hitler target.
By 1945, the Crystal Pool, then a magnet for tens of thousands of Washingtonians and service personnel stationed in the area, could not open for the season because there weren't enough drivers to provide trolley service to the park.
For those who couldn't make it out to Glen Echo in the 1940s, the sounds of the park came to them. Willard Scott, today a national television personality, remembers his days as a radio broadcaster.
On Friday and Saturday nights, he would beam out to Washingtonians: ''From the beautiful Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park just outside the nation's capital, this is ...'' It could have been any number of orchestras or big bands - Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Glen Miller - all the greats played in the ballroom that bulged with 1,500 couples.
By the 1950s, Washington-area residents with sets could tune into ''Television From the Park.'' Milt Grant hosted the ''American Bandstand for the Washington area - seven days a week - a dance party, and it's one swinging time!''
Alice Consolvo clearly remembers getting gussied up for an evening of dancing at the Spanish Ballroom. ''That was the place to go on a date,'' she recalls. Quickly replacing her dreamy look with a frown, she adds: ''Trouble was, we had a really tough time figuring out what to wear. How were we supposed to go from that wonderful dance floor onto those wild rides in our best dresses?''
While the post-war baby boom still provided crowds for Glen Echo, they were smaller and smaller. Opening day drew 15,000 people out in 1944; by 1950 that number dropped to just 3,000.
The amusement park's final private owners - the Baker brothers - wanted to make more money on their investment and tried to build five 15-story apartment buildings on the site in the 1960s. Besieged by environmental groups, civic organizations, and even the federal government's opposition to the high-rise city, they gave up the park in a land swap with the National Park Service in 1971.
Some locals are still smarting from those years of racial turbulence. During a recent show at Glen Echo's puppet theater, a pair of grandparents sat on a bench while they watched their grandchildren ooh and aah at the performance.
''You won't hear the real reason why this place closed,'' offers the grandfather, referring to the amusement-park days. Integration, he says, ''ruined it for all of us.''
Nancy Long, a 65-year resident of the town of Glen Echo, whose memories cover more than half of the park's history, lays blame on the Baker brothers for letting the park fall apart once their building scheme was blocked. ''By the time anybody who wanted could come here, there wasn't much to come to.'' Most of the rides were auctioned off, and even the carousel was put up for sale.
If whites and blacks found it awkward to share the same park in the 1960s, a sea of colorful faces proves that is not the case today. A ticket-taker at the Puppet Theater says she sees ''all nationalities, races, and religions coming through. We're especially sensitive to that,'' she adds with a smile.
On a midweek morning, Miss Long sits at a shaded picnic table, one of dozens resting on a thick bed of wood chips near the carousel. The tables around her are all taken by birthday parties, summer-camp lunches, even office outings. Her long silver hair pinned back in a bun and pale blue eyes peering at the boys and girls riding the merry-go-round, she smiles with satisfaction. In 1970, Long went door to door and also solicited foundations to raise $80,000 to buy back the carousel from a collector who purchased it. It was and remains the jewel of the park.
Many share that strong spirit of cooperation - as the thousands of volunteers demonstrate. They simply want the park to survive.
Clipping away in her backyard garden decades after the teen dances and Pepsi-Cola drinking contests, Ms. Consolvo pays the ultimate compliment to a place many people have simply committed to nostalgia. ''The beauty of the Glen Echo is that it spans many generations. It's really accommodated itself to all of those changes in a community sort of way.''
Back in the steamy Spanish Ballroom, that comment rings true. Betsy Platt, who runs the popular Friday-night dance program, is busy greeting patrons and chasing after her two-year-old, Hannah.
''We were dancing here on the day she was due,'' says Ms. Platt, who met her husband at a Glen Echo dance seven years ago this week. ''You can dance here all night,'' Platt beams. ''When you leave here, you feel more energetic than when you came.''