While the Buchanan School Plaza in the Capitol Hill neighborhood has shrunk greatly since its construction, the original playground and park facilities built in 1968 represented major changes in playground design, concepts of play, and urban beautification projects in the United States. Funded and facilitated by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, the plaza combined the talents of landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, architect Simon Breines, and sculptor William Tarr to create the once highly-praised park. Designed as an “Adventure Style” playground popular in the 1960s and 1970s, the structures in the park used changes in elevation, open-ended structures, and a fluid layout to give children of all ages more freedom in how they played. Additionally, the park featured a multipurpose sunken court that served as a basketball court, ice rink, amphitheater, and more, allowing visitors of all ages to enjoy the space.
The Committee first took interest in the land because of its location next to Buchanan Elementary School, which looked to have deteriorated itself, with the existing playground felt barren and uninviting to the neighborhood’s children. After touring the space with future DC mayor Walter Washington, the Committee chose the location as their next beautification project. The park’s creation brought community members together and gave local children a safe space to play, socialize, and gather after school and with parents whenever they liked. The design used changes in elevation and incorporated natural separation rather than walls and fences seen in other parks, creating a more fluid environment for children, teens, and adults to all share the facilities without feeling isolated from one another. The plaza also featured a pavilion that housed an administrative office, snack bar, and bathrooms.
The park was bounded by William Tarr’s three sculptures titled Numbers, with the largest standing at 15 feet and the two smaller standing around two feet tall. All three stone sculptures are rectangular in shape and feature carvings on each side and throughout the length of each block. The designs feature geometric shapes, symbols, letters, and characters in other languages at various depths within the stone. The largest stands at the corner of 13th and E St SE, with the other two at the other end of the plaza, now tucked within an alley.
The park served the community for many years, but by 1978 it had fallen into disrepair due to a lack of maintenance, as well as Buchanan Elementary School’s closure. Despite the loss, local resident John “Peter Bug” Matthews successfully petitioned the DC government to transform the plaza’s pavilion into a shoe repair shop and training center, which still stands today. Known as the Peter Bug Shoe Academy, the shop trains students in shoe repair and operates as a business. The shop has gained attention and a reputation within the community, with Matthews acting as a community leader for many years.
Of the park’s original structures, only five remain: the sunken court, the pavilion (now Peter Bug Shoe Academy), and Tarr’s three sculptures. The land has since been divided into various housing developments, slowly chipping away at the park’s old footprint. The site remains as one of the few surviving examples of the architects’ Adventure style playgrounds, as many others around the country have also been demolished or redesigned.
DC Inventory: November 17, 2022