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D.C.’s Sonny Bono Park, a history

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Learn about why the Heurich House Museum is behind the maintenance and beautification of this lesser-known green space

All photos by Alyssa Kopervos

Landscaper Kellie Cox had found the underground water line, but the pipe was rusted shut, so volunteers ran a hose from the Heurich House Museum across the street to water the new grass at Sonny Bono Park.

It’s an often overlooked piece of property during the walk up from Georgetown to Dupont Circle, a little triangle of grass. Without knowing it’s relationship to the singer, one half of Sonny and Cher, the park is seemingly unremarkable, cramped with small stools that boggle the mind as to whether they’re supposed to be sat on or stepped on—or if maybe they’re an art piece. In a call, The Apolline condominiums next door couldn’t confirm whether the newly renovated park had made an effect on condo sales because they didn’t know what it was or that it existed.

However, the years-long bond between this old park and the Heurich House Museum, a gilded age mansion across the street, preserves the continuing history of Dupont Circle. Both are living memories of what the neighborhood has been.

Volunteers from the community already pulled the weeds, worked the earth, and removed abandoned shopping carts from the small park. Thousands of dollars came in from a Kickstarter, which used Cox’s art to illustrate how the garden would look when they finished.

In the end, it only took one full day to restore it to what it looked like in 1998 when it was first completed.

Black railing surrounds a small triangular patch of grass on all sides. On an incline which also serves as the entrance, a medallion commemorates the musician. Allegedly buried below that, a small capsule carries Sonny Bono memorabilia.

The front of the Heurich House Museum is red brick, and it looks like a small castle from so many Victorian novels. It was completed in 1894 when the Heurich family had become one of the wealthy D.C. elite after the success of their Foggy Bottom brewery. By the 1950s, as the widow Amelie Heurich entered the last years of her life, she witnessed the beginnings of a total reconstruction of the neighborhood and feared that the Heurich House too would be torn down, so she willed the house to the Washington Historical Society. Now, it remains as one of the only houses of the era in D.C., still hosting beer tastings and, in December, a Christkindlmarkt.

Inside, Cox maintained a spacious courtyard garden. Like Sonny Bono Park, this small grassy area filled with flowers is also open to the public. “Couples get their wedding pictures taken there,” says Cox.

The garden has become a gathering spot for professionals in the area who grab lunch while looking at the flowers. With one park inside the building and another almost at the front door, it’s not difficult to see why the Heurich House Museum felt some responsibility for Sonny Bono Park.

“They’re sister gardens,” says Cox.

At some point, it seemed that Sonny Bono Park’s closed off shape—formed by the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue NW and 20th and O streets NW—had become a trash dump.

“It was kind of sad. It had fallen into—I guess—disrepair is a word,” says Kim Bender, executive director of the Heurich House Museum, adding that it was “filled with trash bags.”

In 2011, when Bender took her new job at the Museum, the role came with an office that looked out to the street directly facing Sonny Bono Park. Every day, she would see the trash build up.

“It seemed like a no brainer,” she says. “We take control of the park and clean it up,” which they did in 2015. The hurdle was explaining why the park was in such poor condition to begin with, and what the Heurich House Museum could legally do to renovate it.

“First of all, Sonny Bono Park is not part of the National Park system.” says Jeffrey Olson, public affairs officer for the National Parks Service. According to Olson, the property had been transferred to the District in 1973 “for minor street improvements.”

Olson explains that the reason this is important is because the National Park Service is mandated to maintain all of its parks, and apparently Sonny Bono has a history of falling into disrepair. In 1998 when the park was first announced months after the death of Sonny Bono, Washington City Paper asked the locals about the future of “an orphaned sliver of public space at the junction of New Hampshire Avenue ... a muddy, weed- and rat-infested no man’s land ringed by a broken sidewalk.” Most significantly for Olson, were the park to have stayed under control of the National Park Service, there probably would never have been Sonny Bono Park at all; only Congress can decide what becomes a national park.

Instead, control went to the Department of Parks and Recreation, which, through its Adopt-a-Park program, gave the site to D.C.-based developer Geary Simon, a friend of Bono. As Kim Bender soon learned, this meant that the responsibility of clean up belonged to him.

According to a Washington City Paper interview with Simon, he had been on the phone with Bono the instant that he died on the ski slopes, and insisted that Sonny Bono had been watching over him ever since.

Simon said at the time, “A sod supplier ... warned [me] that the project would wither without constant [watering]. ‘At that time, the sprinkler system wasn’t complete, so I looked up and said, Sonny, did you hear the man? We need a lot of water.’ And it rained for eight straight days. That’s a true story.’”

Simon was mostly uninvolved with the project, but Bender retells his story, describing how she had gotten his phone number from the Department of Parks and Recreations and, after so many attempts to get in contact with him, had given up trying to include him in the renovation. Eventually, she worked with the Department of Parks and Recreation to move control of the park to the Heurich House Museum because Simon was missing paperwork. However, according to her, the mysterious developer did make one appearance during the clean up. According to Bender, Simon one night wrestled past the old trash bags and ripped all the plants out of the park, leaving them on the sidewalk and the street for her to find the next morning.

Even so, Bender is happy to honor Sonny Bono and is always open to work along Simon were the park to need it.

“My intention is to keep it as a community space that people are willing to use.” she says. “It’s our part of the neighborhood. It’s perfect. It’s fun. It’s kind of funny and interesting.”