Rock Creek Park is pretty extraordinary when you think about it; a dense, unspoiled public greenspace in the center of the Western World’s seat of power. What could be more representative of democracy itself? Well, aside from the massive mansion in the middle of the park surrounded by a six foot high fence topped with razor wire and connected to the rest of the city by a quasi-legal access road that cuts through federal parkland.
If you set out from Columbia Heights and head west on the trails in Rock Creek, you may come across the fence yourself. It’s not like the fence one finds around a tennis court or elementary school; with coils of razor wire topping chain-link fencing, it looks more like something you’d see around a U.S. embassy in Syria. There are several “Private Property” signs posted, though the land inside the fence certainly seems to be securely in the park’s borders. At the bottom of the slope, there’s an extremely long driveway, with a small sign reading “2121 Park Road.” Curious, I did some investigating and learned that the private driveway leads to “The Rocks,” a 1920s-era estate owned by West Virginia Senator John Rockefeller IV. (It’s a good thing I didn’t just walk up the driveway and look around, as I’d considered; internet commenters claim the property is guarded by dogs.)
The estate, which is the largest privately-owned residence in the District, was built in the Twenties by wealthy widow Daisy Blodgett – one of two houses she built on Rock Creek as presents for her daughters. The first she dubbed Abremont, a name which was changed to Hillwood by its next owner, Marjorie Merriweather Post. (That house is now a museum.) The second was the Rocks, built on 16 acres for her daughter Mona when she married David St. Pierre Galliard. (“The Rocks” was the name of the Galliard family’s *cringe* South Carolina plantation.) Rockefeller bought the rundown manse in 1989 for $6.5 million in cash; according to District records, the anticipated 2014 value is $17.9 million (though other estimates put it in the low twenties). Photos of the 21,000 square foot, 12 bedroom, 17 bathroom house are scarce, but a Wall Street Journal article (which itself is illustrated by a grainy birds-eye photo from Google Earth) describes the house as having “four Ionic columns and a slate roof and 17 windows across the front.”
But what about that driveway cutting through the park? Granted, Rockefeller is a senator, and rich, and well, a Rockefeller, but it still seems to be an extraordinary exception. I contacted the National Park Service, who didn’t reply to my questions, so I contacted a local attorney, Daniel Hornal, principal at Talos Law, and asked him about it. Hornal speculated that Rockefeller might have an “easement.”
“An easement gives someone the right to use property without owning it,” Hornal said. “Mr. Rockefeller may outright own the property where the driveway is, or he may have an easement in his favor against the NPS. Or it could have been done illegally, but that seems unlikely given the location and prominence of the property. It’s impossible to tell what’s happening here without actually looking at the deeds.”
Coincidentally, my parents recently got an easement to build a road through someone else’s land, to connect a house they built on an inland plot to the main road. (It’s a bit more modest than Rockefeller’s $17.9 million house; more like $17.9 thousand.) But in their case, they had to legally prove that it was absolutely necessary; if there was any other way to access the road, they wouldn’t have gotten their easement. This clearly isn’t the case at the Rocks, which has perfectly good access at its front address of 1940 Shepherd NW. Of course, when you’re worth a hundred million dollars and hosted fundraisers for the President when he was just a first-term senator from Illinois, the threshold for “necessity” might be open to a little interpretation. (“Remember the gridlock on Shepherd after our last ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ party?! Remember those old ladies powerwalking by when Rupert was puking out the window of his Bentley? What if one of them had had an iPhone?”) This is clearly a powerful man we’re talking about. Next time I get in trouble with the law, I’m going to tell them I’m buddies with Jay Rockefeller, and if they have a problem, they should take it up at 2121 Park Road. If they even bother to check it out, they’ll probably get eaten by dogs before they get halfway up the driveway.