Special PoP Feature: Intangible Tales Vol. 4

The great Intangible Arts is back for volume 4 of his intangible tales. If you missed the previous entries check out Vol. 1 here, Vol. 2 here and Vol. 3 here. All the amazing photographs were taken by Intangible Arts. Vol. 4 takes a closer look at the McMillan Reservoir.


We got our house a couple of years ago and proudly spread the word to friends and family, many of whom are far away and don’t know DC very well (also, many of whom figured I’d never get my sh*t together enough to buy a house at all, thus proving that life is totally wacked.)

We learned to love the McMillan Reservoir for its value as a place-marker, for showing the folks where the heck we are: “y’see on the map, the kidney-bean shaped body of water north of center? Yeh? Near that.”

But sadly, that’s the end of its “usefulness” to those of us who live nearby. The chain-link and barbed wire fences mean business (as do the folks in uniform at the gates that would prefer that I put the friggin’ camera down and move along, please). But it’s a beautiful property, weaving down the eastern edge of the Howard U football field towards the aqueduct pump house. The landscaping in there is rolling and green and completely cut off to everyone but the Army Corps of Engineers and swarms of farting geese. Story continues after the jump.


To the east of the reservoir is the field of sand filtration towers, looking like some haunted industrial playground. The whole complex is a curiosity now, since it’s no longer a functioning water source. The site is one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the District, and honestly, I wouldn’t mind keeping it (mostly) that way: open, accessible green space.

The sand-filtration catacombs beneath the ground were framed with unreinforced concrete over 100 years ago, so much of the ground is unsafe to build upon. It would seem perfect, therefore, to go with a public park program, plus the construction of some basic amenities (small grocery, etc) and eventually tear those damned fences down, yes?


Potomac river water hasn’t flowed through the site since the mid-80s, but the grounds have been closed to the public since WWII (predating Homeland Security paranoia by several decades). Now of course, it’s just an attractive space wrapped in barbed wire.

So what’s the deal today?

There have been plans, proposals, and meetings for decades, but the place seems cursed to remain stuck in some inertial coma. BUT, thanks to a land-swap deal arranged by former mayor Anthony Williams, newer forces are in motion now and maybe (just maybe) something may be happening.

There was a community meeting on the fate of McMillan on April 22nd, at Trinity University (I heard about it about a week too late, alas). Thankfully, IMGoph has documented some of this meeting (with pix of proposal renderings) at http://imgoph.blogspot.com/2008/04/bloomingdale-youre-getting-wal-mart.html“>Bloomingdale (for now). Sounds like there was great attendance, and neighbors were universally concerned that any development must FIT the neighborhood. As it should.

A number of the underground catacomb cells have deteriorated enough to require demolition with whatever plan gets approved. Thus, the land itself will likely see some big changes, no matter what the building/construction plans are.


For now, I just dig the space for what it is: something to walk the dog around, where the geese can tease him mercilessly from inside the fence. It makes our neighborhood a unique one in DC, to be within an easy walk of the shopping action on 14th street, but right around the corner, a gorgeous slab of calm Earth.

15 Comment

  • Does anyone reading this have a view of the reservoir? From your roof deck?

  • ive never seen the reservoir, as i only drive on the north capitol side (always wondering what the hell those towers are for), but i think it would be AWESOME to have this open to the public with little or no renovation… the site is just so cool looking, and who wouldnt want to take a few artsy pics of your friends while picnicing in the shade of one of these structures? imagine the games of tag you could play, dodging and hiding behind the small hills and over grown embankments.. geez, i feel 10 yrs old again just thinking about it!

  • My daily commute involves walking across one of the mini-fields/orchards. I just noticed they are not mowed regularly. Hope there are no ticks. It’s like being in the country for a few minutes every day

  • The Fenty administration floated a plan not too long ago that would link the Old Soldier’s Home with the reservoir with walking/biking trails and then make the reservoir area itself a park with a jogging trail around the water.

    Not sure what happened to that.

  • yeah, I like driving by the reservoir and it would be awesome to see people boating around in it, maybe some paddle boats… and picnic blankets with people dressed in their sunday best and parasoles, ok now I think I’m just describing a painting I saw.

  • Hmmm… considering it’s the drinking water supply for Washington DC, and the city *is* a terrorist target, I’m not sure that allowing people easy access to the reservoir is such a good idea. In fact, I believe the fence was originally put up during World War II for security concerns.

    Then again, maybe anything dropped into the reservoir would only improve the DC water quality…

  • oh…well yeah, ok I am going to nix the boating idea then, but what about all the ducks and geese that are …well you know…in our drinking water-GROSS!! It makes me laugh though because it reminds me of that bottled water commercial with the bear who uses the spring as a toilet and the fish who are “spawning” in there.

  • The place is crying out to be on the agenda for the next round of WalkingTown DC tours, with a knowlegeable guide (and possibly hard hats provided).

  • I talked to a friend who works for a large real estate developer in the area. There are plans already to develop the site. It is in the preliminary stages but the planning has already begun.

  • Central Park has a reservoir, and a great running track around it. All it would take is to move the McMillan fence a few feet inward, and it could be a great park path. It doesn’t seem like a small change like that ought to be held hostage by some fanciful real estate development of the region. Just make a pedestrian friendly path around the water…

  • I can see it fromm my roofdeck. It is about 40% as good as having a real, non-fenced waterview, but it provides a nice mirror for smoggy DC sunsets.

  • Mr T – I’ve been in touch with the developers and the city a number of times to attempt to get a tour. I know of 2 that have been offered, both by the developer on short notice during a weekday. I want SO much to get on that property to do some photography.

    In talking with some of the members of the Pleasant Plains (lower Georgia Ave) Heritage Trail working group, I’ve heard a number of stories about neighborhood folks going over there to sleep around the water on hot nights in the era before air conditioning.

  • I really dig these photos, particularly the warm brick and that gorgeous seal. I had to plug MDCCCCI into a Roman numeral conversion website because I blanked on what “D” stood for.

  • Actually, though it WAS the DC water supply – it is no longer. It was shut down back in the 1980s. Now it just sits….waiting to be loved again.

  • Here are two cents from a new employee of the Army Corps of Engineers (me). The McMillan filtration plant remains in operation as part of the water supply system — this is the area and facilities around the reservoir itself, which will not be opened to the public or redeveloped. The older filtration system is in the tract of land between N. Cap and 1st Streets. This is the area that might be redeveloped.
    For some history on the facilities and some good photos, see pages 170-77 (chap 4, esp. p. 176) and page 257 (chap 6) at the following link:

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