Codename: Cartwheel

by Molly

Fort Reno may be just a shadow of its former Civil War self, but it seems like the loss of rampart fabric has allowed for decades of other significant developments on the site. (As a preservationist, I’m inclined to use the word “layers” here…) The disparate uses of the site may not be linked or even legible on a walk through the site (see this earlier post), but the hodgepodge of water towers is noteworthy in its own right.

First, the 1903 water tower, complete with red diaper bond brick and medieval motifs:

followed by the 1929 water tower, whose French Norman design won architect Arthur Harris an award from the Washington Board of Trade:

followed by the oh-so-intentionally nondescript concrete tower (below, on left) that joined the rest of the jumbled site around 1957:

(Image author and source)

Turns out it’s this last tower that bookends the wartime significance of this site: Fort Reno’s concrete water tower was built at the height of the Cold War, designed to protect members of the Executive Branch in the event of actual conflict. The site was referred to by the codename “Cartwheel,” and as the author of this blog post documents, the tower took advantage of Fort Reno’s elevation (useful for radio signals) and hid a top-secret continuity-of-government site in plain sight. Its very banality in the midst of–let’s face it–some very quirky, distinctive other water towers served as its best camouflage. The site’s other infrastructure uses also disguised the facility’s presence: the construction of the underground communication center (said to connect the White House with other major centers in the Mid-Atlantic) may have been shrouded in a larger project to expand the pump station’s reservoirs.

Image source

I’m still wrapping my head around the full extent of this chapter in Fort Reno’s history (there’s plenty more information at that link above). But this information makes Fort Reno all the more fascinating as a case study of the parks’ current experiential disconnect (all of which have been noted before), and their place in a larger network of sites in communication with each other during a time of war–Cold now, not Civil. It’s almost too perfect that the tower was built almost exactly 100 years after the original fort.