Wednesday, June 11, 2014

McMillan Sand Filtration Plant, DC

On Sunday a few of us met up with a guide who was going to show us around the old McMillan San Filtration site in DC. In 2012 public tours were ceased after 20 years of running successfully and safely. The area is now in serious danger of being razed to the ground to build condominiums. But there are still many people who want to preserve the site, and return it to the park it once was, while creating an artistic use for the buildings and chambers below ground.
As you walk through the quiet residential streets to the site, all you can really see are tall grassy banks but then gradually a line of  tall cylindrical structures come into view, some covered with vines, and a courtyard area, with a few vehicles, tools and building materials from a construction company. At the other end of the park are another line of these structures, this time looking somehow abject with cranes towering above them. We walked through long grass, dodging the numerous manhole covers that were 20ft apart, and in places open holes where the covers had disappeared. When this was a park area, local folks used to come here to sleep on hot summer nights, rather than staying in their stuffy houses.
The plant was built in 1905 on a 25 acre site, the first large scale water purification facility in DC. A large reservoir was surrounded by parkland and the public enjoyed the paths and landscaping until WWII when the park was shut forever to the public. The plant continued operating until 1986 and has remained unused since then. Friends of McMillan Park are a group dedicated to preserving and restoring the site and it was one of their members that took us here on Sunday. Their website with photos and a full history is here.
We walked down into the cool dark chambers that were once filled with 3ft or more of sand through which the water would slowly filter, using a biological process to clean, and finishing up with an exceptionally good quality of water with a 90-99% bacterial reduction.
There was some sand left down here, still looking remarkably clean. Where a few of the man holes had been removed or broken, the bright sunshine entered the chamber as beams, throwing an almost ethereal light to the room. I added a water effect to he photo above, but of course, while this plant was in operation the water level would have been much higher.
Light coming down through a man hole into the chamber, and one seem from above looking down.
The sand storage bins and regulator house are still in good condition. It would be nice to see these turned into museum rooms showing how the plant used to work or even decorated shady seating areas showcasing local artists' work, with each bin giving out soft colored lights at dark.
The underground chambers are beautifully designed and still very sturdy. There is no water in them now. Some have sand still, giving some people ideas of transforming them into an urban beach with daylight bulbs. One we entered had no sand at all but had amazing acoustics. Our guide told us there were plans to bring an opera singer down here, maybe bands, and even a ballet company. The possibilities are endless. Some of us suggested an artists' workshop or studio area since others relatively local have immense success. Even an underground courtyard eating area with restaurants would be cool. Some of the chambers could become parking areas. Or a community garden area would be beautiful with little areas as parkland with rustic seats, arches, ponds, paved courtyards, and sculptures made by resident artists.
This horrendous rendering is what Vision McMillan Partners have in mind for the area, a mixed use plan for the site which Friends of McMillan are opposing. They hope the plant can become part of the Emerald Necklace which is a string of green park lands around DC, primarily on hill tops and high points of the city.None of us who walked about this wanted to see any new buildings on the site. Despite the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city, this green area perched up on a hill retained its peacefulness and had a calming influence. It would be a crime to allow greedy property developers to destroy this to line their own pockets.
A great video about the plant's destiny is here.
Here are some clips of local residents.
Interesting article, click here.

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