The Guy Mason Recreation center was extensively renovated in 2011. (Photo, Bill Petros/The Current)
The original institution at this location was the Poor and Workhouse of Georgetown (1832-1874), which stood east of today’s Guy Mason Recreation Center.
Title to that building, and the land it stood on, passed from Georgetown to the United States through the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871, which revoked the charters of the City of Washington, the City of Georgetown, and of Washington County.
In 1874 the Industrial Home School, an orphanage and reformatory, took up residence; its schoolhouse was built in 1902.
By 1954, it had long been understood that the Industrial Home School would eventually leave its outdated and decrepit facility, and the Naval Observatory was eager to complete a thousand-foot “circle of exclusion” to protect its sensitive instruments from traffic vibrations.
In 1927 the Secretary of the Navy offered the District Commissioners about sixteen unneeded acres of the Barber estate in return for seven acres of the Industrial Home School needed to complete the circle. That year, Congress approved an act (44 Stat. 1386) to assign the remainder of the site not needed by the Navy to the District Commissioners for school, recreation and highway purposes.
In 1943 and 1945 requests by the D.C. Recreation Board and the National Capital Planning Commission had narrowed that down to just recreation and highway uses, i.e. the extension of Calvert Street to Observatory Circle. (A 1949 attempt by business interests to secure the site for parking purposes was successfully resisted by the Recreation Board.)
In 1954, having learned that residents of the Industrial Home School were finally to be transferred to the new Children’s Center in Laurel, Maryland, the D.C. Recreation Board officially requested the Commissioners to assign the site for “city-wide and neighborhood centers programs”.
The main building of the Industrial Home School was razed, and its site was incorporated into the circle of of the Naval Observatory. The remaining land, and the 1902 schoolhouse of the Industrial Home School, were put at the disposal of the D.C. Department of Recreation, and named in honor of District of Columbia Commissioner Guy Mason.
(Senate Calendar No.1623, Report No.1619, 69th Congress, 2nd Session, February 25, 1927; Evening Star, July 23, 1954; Files of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation; Cleere, The House On Observatory Hill, p.9)
Guy Mason (Harry S. Truman Library and Museum)
District Commissioner Guy Mason
Guy Mason (born 1880, in Pierston, Indiana) served in the cavalry during the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. After returning to civilian life, he tried his hand at professional baseball, playing for San Antonio in the Texas League. At twenty-four Mason tried out for the Washington Nats. Feeling outclassed, he decided to become a newspaper correspondent instead, a career he pursued for a decade, attending political conventions, and covering the White House and the departments during the Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson administrations. Although he had been a Republican in early life, in 1916 he served in the campaign to re-elect Woodrow Wilson, and became a Democrat. (Mason also studied the law after hours, and passed the bar in 1917.)
In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt appointed Guy Mason to the three-man commission that governed the District of Columbia. In this position Mason supervised various agencies under the Board of Public Welfare and the Health Department, and oversaw the operations of the Alcoholic Control Board, the coroner’s office, and numerous other examining boards.
Sunday Star, August 24, 1941
His years as a journalist had given Mason a taste for vivid expression. Thus, where another official might perhaps have declared conditions at a particular city hospital to be “deplorable”, Mason simply called the place a “flophouse”. His views on prisoner rehabilitation were in a similar vein: “They ought to use a little more lead pipe on those fellows instead of teaching them to crochet.” (“Guy Mason, 74, Dies; Served As Commissioner 10 Years”, Star, July 11, 1955)
As a presidentially appointed commissioner, Mason was under no great obligation to consult the vote-less citizens of Washington, and incurred no great risk if he offended them. In his first year in office, Commissioner Mason reversed a longstanding policy of sharing District budget estimates with the public, explaining that “all the public has to do is pay the bills.” “If the public and the press want to raise hell about it, it’s all right with me. Let them raise hell.” Mason’s two fellow commissioners, alarmed at the widespread indignation that followed, were obliged to overrule him, but there was no political penalty. (“Anger Sweeps D.C. As Mason Reveals Secret Budget Plan––Backtrack Hinted By Commissioner As Protests Mount”, Times Herald, September 4, 1941)
Guy Mason retired in 1951, and died in 1955.
Washington historian Constance Green (who characterized the District commissioners as generally unable to delegate responsibility, or to exercise effective control) describes Commissioner Mason as highly competent, though lacking in experience. But his scant regard for taxpayers does much to explain why the commissioner system found few local defenders in its final decades. (“Guy Mason, 74, Dies; Served As Commissioner 10 Years”, Star, July 11, 1955; Green, Washington: A History of the Capital, 1800-1950, v.2, 473)
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