Photo by M. V. Jantzen on Flickr.

It’s easy to ignore a thing of beauty when you pass it every single day. It’s even easier to ignore it when you cruise over on top of it in a bus or car. The “it” in question is the Dumbarton Bridge, and today I want to stop and take in the bridge’s beauty and tell its interesting story.

Georgetown was formed in 1751, decades before the founding of the District of Columbia and the city of Washington. Even after the creation of the District, Georgetown remained separated from the city of Washington both as a legal and a infrastructural matter through much of the 19th century. In 1871, however, Georgetown was merged with the city of Washington. In the decades after the legal merger, rapid residential developments directly to the east of Georgetown contributed greatly towards a physical merger as well.

Specifically, in the 1890s construction of the Connecticut Avenue bridge (now known as Taft Bridge) was started, Massachusetts Ave. north of Rock Creek was paved, and the Kalorama Estate was subdivided into residential plots. This inspired Georgetowners to push for a new bridge connecting north Georgetown with the quickly growing Kalorama neighborhood. They asserted that Q St. was the best option, although it came with a couple pretty significant complications (I’ll get to that later).

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first significant effort by Georgetowners to try to tie the neighborhood more closely with the neighborhoods directly across the park. Before a bridge was proposed, the Georgetown Citizens Association seriously proposed that Rock Creek be turned into a culvert, and the Rock Creek gorge filled in with land. This would open the area to residential development and facilitate movement between Georgetown and downtown. The plan was shot down by the McMillan Commission in 1901.

So a bridge it would have to be. By 1910, plans began to be formed. However, as mentioned above, there were some serious complications. First of all, Q st. came to a dead end at Dumbarton House. The historic mansion had to be relocated 100 feet to where it sits today. Secondly, Q St. in Georgetown is 185 feet south of Q St. across the park. The solution to this problem resulted in one of the bridge’s most elegant features: its gentle curve.

The bridge was designed by Glenn Brown, a secretary of the American Institute of Architects and one of the main proponents of the McMillan Commission and its efforts to bring the City Beautiful design theory to Washington. And City Beautiful design elements are all over this bridge. First of all, it is a neoclassical bridge with strong influences from Roman aqueducts. Secondly, the very fact that a bridge was constructed with such grand scale and style instead of with a purely functional style was also a fundamental technique of the City Beautiful movement.

Finally, like the Columbian Exposition that kicked off the City Beautiful movement, the bridge’s design reflects a nostalgia for the by then disappeared American Frontier: the sidewalks are supported by a series of arches each decorated with a bust taken from a life-mask of the Sioux Chief Kicking Bear and the bridge’s entrances are adorned with four massive bronze statues of buffalo. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the actual Kicking Bear was part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which probably did more to stoke that nostalgia than any one thing.)

Those stately buffalo are probably the bridge’s most distinctive feature, and they’re why some call it the Buffalo Bridge (although frankly, GM hardly ever hears anyone actually use this name). They were designed by Phimister Proctor, who also designed the lion sculptures on the Taft Bridge. As you may remember, a few years ago they were in bad shape. An effort organized by the Dupont Circle Conservancy restored the buffalo to their current dark bronze state. By the way, apparently in 1923, the tail of the southeastern buffalo was cut off. Thankfully, at some point his dignity was restored.

The bridge’s construction was finished in 1915.

Some more interesting tidbits:

  • On the east end of the bridge, there used to be a plaza with a fountain. On the other end there was a streetcar yard (I’m not sure if it’s part of the streetcar yard, but from this undated photo above, there appears to have once been a large factory building just west of the bridge).
  • Originally there was a median down the center of the bridge where the lamps were (you can sort of see that above). It was removed in 1938 due to concerns over traffic safety and the lights were moved to the sidewalks.
  • Perhaps the oddest fact of all: the undisputed expert in all things Dumbarton Bridge is none other than Minor Threat’s Jeff Nelson, who’s apparently been working on a book about the bridge since a year after Salad Days was released.

Pretty much all of this information (plus the historic photos) came from the Historic American Building Survey from the Library of Congress.

This article was crossposted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.


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Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.