T here exists a wonderful playground for young children on S Street between 22nd and 23rd streets NW. Mitchell Park is there because of a generous donation of land by a wealthy woman named Elizabeth Patterson Mitchell, who died in December 1917. In her will, she requested that the bones of her beloved poodle, Bock, which were buried on that land, not be disturbed. But the grave site for her dog has vanished. What happened?
— Bill DeCosta, Bethesda, Md.
Bock’s bones are still there, said Holly Sukenik, who is co-founder and vice president of the Friends of Mitchell Park and has lived in the Kalorama neighbor-
hood since the 1980s. On a recent visit, she showed Answer Man the plaque that details Bock’s story. It’s on a low wall in the rubber-surfaced toddler play area. The bones, she said, are nearby.
How did a dog’s grave come to be in a children’s playground? Well, it’s more a case of a playground being built around a dog’s grave.
Elizabeth Patterson Mitchell was the widow of Morton Mitchell, nephew of New York politician Levi P. Morton. She was also the widow of George S. Ladd, founder of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. In other words: rich.
Mitchell spent most of her time in San Francisco, New York and Europe, but she “seasoned” for a few years in Washington. In 1901, she paid $65,000 for the western half of the block bounded by 23rd and S streets and Bancroft Place. “It is Mrs. Mitchell’s intention to erect a handsome residence,” wrote The Post.
When her 14-year-old dog, Bock, expired — one report said someone kicked him and that he died from internal injuries — she had him buried in what she apparently assumed would one day be her back yard.
But she never built the house. Mitchell was worth $2 million when she died, and she scattered her wealth all over the place, including to gondoliers who had ferried her around Venice. She endowed the George Ladd Prix de Paris, a scholarship that still sends a music composition student at the University of California at Berkeley to Paris for a year.
Her bequests in Washington included $5,000 to Emergency Hospital (a precursor to Washington Hospital Center) and the property on S Street NW. A handwritten codicil explained: “This was to have been our home and it is given to the city of Washington for a park, provided the bones of our good old dog now resting there are not disturbed.”
The park opened April 10, 1919. Because of its location near Embassy Row, it attracted — and attracts still — a junior League of Nations. The Post noted tots from the legations of China, Siam (now Thailand), Egypt and Turkey.
“Soon there will be little Nazis,” wrote The Post in 1937, “for the German Embassy is preparing to build on adjacent property.”
As it turned out, it didn’t. During World War II, the land was confiscated by the United States and then turned over to the District to enlarge the park.
In 1947, Margaret Hultman of California visited Mitchell Park and expressed dissatisfaction with the paltry acknowledgment of the late donor, who had been a friend. She paid for a bronze plaque. (That plaque was stolen. The current one is a replacement.)
Kalorama residents regularly lobbied the city to improve various aspects of Mitchell Park — the field house was a particular concern — but they balked when it was proposed that basketball courts be installed: They feared this would bring “larger children” from other sections of the city.
There’s another tension that erupts occasionally: Many dog owners allow their dogs to romp off-leash on the ballfield side of Mitchell Park. This is technically not legal, irritating some neighbors, who call the police.
“This is a source of a lot of confusion,” Holly said. “People say, ‘It’s a dog park.’ ”
It’s not. It’s a dog’s memory park.
The last major renovation of Mitchell Park was completed in 2004. It was during this work that the funerary accoutrements of Bock’s grave — a tiny headstone in a rectangular plot enclosed by a chain hanging on bollards — were removed. There’s nothing that looks particularly grave-like now.
This led some dog lovers to wonder whether the bones had been spirited away by an anti-canine cabal.
Not true, said Holly. “We designed around where the grave site was,” she said.
The Department of Parks and Recreation worked with an archaeologist to ensure that the bones weren’t touched, said DPR’s John Stokes.
“The dog is buried in a raised planter that was not disturbed during construction,” John wrote in an email to Answer Man.
It’s impossible to say whether Mrs. Mitchell would have expected Bock’s resting place to be more prominent. What’s certainly true is that children in the 1930s kept the dog’s memory alive.
On Halloween, they would dangle cotton, shaped like a poodle, over the grave while chanting a weird incantation intended to summon the ghost of Bock.
There’s no word on whether he would come.