- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

Oasis. The word springs to mind during a first-time visit to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. It’s the word Renee Strother, a visitor-use assistant, brings out to describe the park where she has worked for six years. “People would never think it’s here,” she says. “That’s what I get most of the time, especially from people who live in the D.C. area.”

Incongruously tucked behind a Northeast Washington neighborhood off a gritty section of Interstate 295, the lush 12-acre sanctuary is the only national park devoted solely to water plants. It features a maze of shallow ponds navigable via grass-carpeted footpaths.

The ponds contain lotuses and waterlilies, hundreds of thousands of them, rising chest high from tubers in the murky water or floating silently. The ponds are home to a host of wetland animals, too, from huge dragonflies to frogs, turtles, snakes and beavers.

Patrons should stop off first in the small, homey visitors center, with its child-size table and chairs, sprinkling of nature displays and tiny gift shop. There they can pick up a map, chat with a staffer and learn a bit about the history of the park.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens traces its roots to Walter B. Shaw, a Union soldier who moved to the District following the Civil War. In 1880, he purchased 37 acres along the Anacostia River and began to indulge his fascination with waterlilies. Mr. Shaw’s hobby turned into a business as he began dredging pools, collecting exotic plants and installing new varieties.

His daughter, Helen Fowler, inherited her father’s love of the water blooms and eventually succeeded him as manager of the grounds, by then called W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds. In the 1920s, according to park literature, “visitors by the thousands came on Sunday mornings to see the waxy flowers as they opened in the summer sun. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace liked to stroll under the willows from pool to pool.”

In 1938, the Interior Department purchased the gardens for $15,000. Today, the grounds, run by the National Park Service, welcome a few hundred visitors daily in the summer.

Yet a recent weekday midmorning stroll along the paths yielded just a handful of visitors, if that many. Sonia and Felix Leon, both District public school science teachers who live in Oxon Hill, were strolling the paths with a 14-year-old relative visiting from Puerto Rico.

“I heard about it four years ago but never stopped,” Mr. Leon said. “It’s great.”

“A lot of people go to tropical destinations to find exotic things like this,” Ms. Leon said, “but this is right here. Be a tourist in your own town.”

Northwest resident and soon-to-be college freshman Melissa Seligmann was there with a group of day campers from the Discovery Creek Children’s Museum, based in the District. She and other staffers are bringing the children, mostly students from Kenilworth Elementary School, to the park four times a week, all day long, for five weeks.

During a break, resting on some picnic tables in the shade, Ms. Seligmann took a moment to explain the lure of the park for children.

“They love it,” she said. “It’s opened their eyes. Even though this is a wetland, it’s so diverse, with such a range of wildlife and plant life. We just saw a snake eating a frog. It’s a gateway into another world, really.”

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is located at 1550 Anacostia Avenue NE, near the Maryland border along the tidal Anacostia River. The entrance to the gardens is just west of Interstate 295 (Kenilworth Avenue), between Quarles and Douglas streets, on Anacostia Avenue.

Directions: From downtown Washington, take Route 50 (New York Avenue) east out of the city. After passing the National Arboretum and South Dakota Avenue, bear right in the direction of Annapolis. Soon after, take the exit marked Route 201 Kenilworth Avenue/Washington D.C./Route 295 south. Exit again almost immediately for Eastern Avenue and the Aquatic Gardens. Pass Eastern Avenue intersecting from the left. Turn right onto Douglas Street, then right at a T-intersection with Anacostia Avenue. Follow Anacostia Avenue a few hundred yards, then turn left into the parking lot for the gardens. The gardens are not near a Metro station.

Hours: The gardens are open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. Call the park to arrange a ranger tour.

Admission and parking: Admission is free. Parking is plentiful and free.

Information: Call 202/426-6905 or visit www.nps.gov/nace/keaq/.

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