Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Filtering History: McMillian Sand Filtration Plant

North Capitol and Michigan Ave NW
Inevitably, when driving down North Capitol with out-of-towners (or local DC-ites who seldom venture east of the Capitol) and we pass the odd towers lurching up from the rolling hills near Washington Hospital Center, they turn to ask: what the heck is that?

Sand Bins
While I've long known the structures are connected to the water system, I recently looked up the full scoop on wikipedia, and can now provide a name: McMillan Sand Filtration Plant. From its completion in 1905 until its decommission in 1986, the jokes about the DC water supply came back to roost on those twenty-five acres. During its active use, McMillan eliminated typhoid epidemics in DC, so if I grumbled about brown water from old pipes in my childhood, all I did was grumble, not fall ill. The slow sand filtration system was a milestone in its time.

Barbed-wire topped fences have surrounded McMillan since WWII, as its use as a public green space eliminated when concerns about the safety of the water supply sprang up. Currently, the area is owned by the DC government, who bought it from the federal government in 1987. Plans for redevelopment have, so far, stalled.

Staircase to abandoned
What does this have to do with art, you ask? Aside from an excuse to play with photography, the art in public spaces (as McMillan used to be) contributes to community in urban life - we gather around beauty. The more I look for art in DC, the more impressed I am by its arrival in unexpected places, from graffiti by the Metro to sculptures commissions by fancy institutions. As human beings, our instinct to detail, arrange, express, beautify, to imprint our style as individuals caught in our particular intersection of time, culture, circumstances, that comforts me. Even the decay of that art into a different form, the beauty of ruins and times past, lends meaning to a walk down a city street.


  1. Appreciate your taking the time to record and publicize the beauty of this site. Please join Friends of McMillan Park on Facebook if you are interested in saving this from the bulldozers and high-density development and turn it instead with artful repurposing into an awesome destination.

  2. I'd love to see McMillan rediscovered as green space, losing the barbed wire.