Memorial to Rittenhouse

The hidden history of Montrose Park

Montrose Park is an unassuming neighborhood park nestled among the historic mansions of Georgetown Heights. However, this park is more than just a gorgeous green space and recreation center. The park holds the story of feminine political power in DC’s early days (pre-voting rights!) and a peek at Georgetown’s industrial origins!

Today, visitors have access to picnic tables, sprawling grounds, a historic boxwood maze, playgrounds, tennis courts, a pergola, a public bathroom (major plus!), and the city’s largest Tulip Poplar. In addition, this park connects to some of the city’s best trails.

Rope making in Georgetown

The ropewalk in modern-day Montrose Park is lined with Osage orange trees and gas lamps. Image: Katy Cain
The ropewalk in modern-day Montrose Park is lined with Osage orange trees and gas lamps. Image: Katy Cain

Industrialist Richard Parrott bought the land that would become Montrose Park in 1804. On his sprawling estate, Parrott built an outdoor rope factory called a ropewalk. Along this straight stretch of ground, workers would twist long strands of hemp into rope. This incredibly important product was used in just about every industry at that time.

Business was booming! (And so was the war of 1812.)

According to the National Park Service’s Cultural Landscape Report, the federal government often called upon Parrot’s ropewalk to supply ropes. In fact, Parrott’s ropewalk supplied the ropes used on the Navy Frigate President, which served in the War of 1812.

I mean, just look at all those ropes.

Model of The President. Image from American History Museum

In addition to the ropewalk, Parrott constructed himself and his family a federal mansion on the property. With gorgeous sprawling grounds, he provided locals with a place to recreate, host large picnics, and put on other major events.

A view of the house with several additions after Parrott sold the house. Via NPS Cultural Landscape Report / Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

After a couple of rope-related fires, Parrott sold the land. The families that followed Parrott added wings to the mansion, built buildings, and planted the park’s first boxwood bushes and Osage oranges.

By the early 1900s, Georgetown was getting pretty industrial and most of the fancier families decided to move elsewhere. As a result, the estate fell into disrepair. Soon it was slated for redevelopment.

The mansion in a state of disrepair. Via NPS Cultural Landscape Report / Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Loulie Lobbies Congress

Sarah Louisa Rittenhouse’s memorial Armillary Sphere. Image credit NPS.

Sarah Louisa Rittenhouse (1845-1943), affectionately called “Miss Loulie,” grew up in the neighborhood. She remembered what it was like before the estate was abandoned and she wanted to return the grounds to its recreational roots. She wanted to see the space saved as a park—Georgetown’s first—and provide neighborhood children with a place to play and adults with a place to recreate.

An act of congress

Rittenhouse needed Congress to buy the land and transform it into a public park. She started a door-knocking campaign with women in her neighborhood. In her words, she aimed to “enhance the value of the whole District by making public property what is one of the most beautiful and picturesque tracts within its boundaries.”

Her plan was working. She gathered around 500 signatures, many of them from women in the neighborhood, and brought her proposition to Congress on January 15, 1904, with the help of Senator Jacob H. Gallinger.

Even though the park proposition passed in the Senate, it was turned down in the House. The main opposition was Speaker of the House, “Uncle Joe” Cannon, who vowed he “wouldn’t give a nickel for parkland anywhere.”  

Second time’s a charm

A newspaper clip discussing the new park plans. Library of Congress.

Unrelenting in her goal, Rittenhouse, continued to write to the newspaper, ring doorbells, and gather signatures. According to the National Park Service, she even led a delegation of Georgetown ladies to corner Speaker Cannon in his own office!

Through her efforts, the proposition was officially tabled in the house in 1906, approved in 1908, and the park was officially purchased in 1911. The estate sold for $110,000. 

Miss Loulie stayed involved with the park planning throughout her life—even though some of her more ambitious ideas didn’t make the final cut. (For example, she wanted to move Georgetown’s Old Stone House to the far corner of the park.)

Visiting today

Park visitors relax in the victorian-era summer house while watching a game of tennis. Credit: Katy Cain

To transform the estate into a park, the government took down the federal-style mansion. They built the pergola and tennis courts and added gas lamps and playgrounds. Some features of the original estate remain including the ropewalk, a victorian era Summer House (the only original structure from the original estate), and 150-year-old boxwood plantings.

Today, the National Park Service maintains Montrose Park). An armillary sphere honoring Sarah Louise Rittenhouse welcomes members of the public as they come to the park for relaxation and recreation—just like Miss Loulie intended.

The park links up with several other prominent parks in the area including Dumbarton Oaks Park and Rock Creek Trail. Click here for a solid walking loop that takes you through Montrose Park.

Park Resources