News & Politics

How a Benedictine Monk Saved Mary Force Stead Park From Becoming a Parking Lot

A Catholic monk spurs a revival of his grandfather’s park in Dupont. Photographs of Stead Recreation Center by Lauren Joseph.

This summer, an elderly Benedictine monk traveled from Rhode Island to take in the changes recently made to a mid-block park on P Street near Dupont Circle. “I thought, ‘This is very nice,’” Father Julian Stead said in a phone call. “I could see people would bring their children there and scoot about.” Children, Father Julian added, “that I think of as my grandchildren.”

The 62-year history of Mary Force Stead Park begins with the early death of Father Julian’s grandmother, Mary Force Stead, in 1895. The granddaughter of DC’s 12th mayor, Peter Force, she was the first wife of Robert Stead, an architect whose buildings include the Lovejoy School on Capitol Hill. Her death is said to have dimmed her widower’s once-sunny personality through his two subsequent marriages. In his will, read in 1943, Stead left land in Southeast DC to be turned into a park, with funds entrusted to its upkeep. A judge denied his heirs’ attempt to reverse the bequest but, finding the location unsuitable, ordered the park relocated.

In 2004, Charles Carroll Carter, a retired Washington publisher who had grown up blocks from Stead Park, was having afternoon tea at the Portsmouth Abbey School, his alma mater near Newport, Rhode Island. He was joined by a former schoolmate, Peter Stead, at the time a teacher at the school, who’d been ordained after graduation and taken the name Julian.

Father Julian explained to Carter that Stead Park had turned into an eyesore. Half of it was a vacant lot, and the homeless used the park as a latrine. “It was looking like a town dump,” Father Julian recalls. A proposal was circulating to replace his grandfather’s park with a community center and a 540-space parking garage.

Photograph by Lauren Joseph.

Carter promised to help. On his first visit, he says, “I was disappointed at how it had deteriorated.” For a decade, he has worked with the city to restore the park, enlisting a local developer, Christopher Dorment, to chair the Friends of Stead Park and real-estate lawyer Whayne Quin, who untangled the trust to free up cash for the renovation.

Today, the park’s bright-red-and-blue equipment and grassy oval have a postmodern edge. Tucked between Foundry United Methodist Church and Duke’s Grocery, the airy space is insulated from the roar of the city, allowing for film screenings and yoga sessions for kids, plus concerts in warm months. The empty lot is a freshly AstroTurfed field. “I’m not an expert,” says Father Julian with Benedictine moderation, “but it was more pleasing to the eye than I had expected.”

This article appears in our January 2016 issue of Washingtonian.