Even on a cold and windy November morning, there’s something peaceful about the path that meanders past the community garden at Arlington County’s Barton Park. The smell of pine needles is strong in the air. Blowing leaves are scattered across the smooth river stones that nestle beneath the boulders that border the walk.
Stroll down an incline so slight it’s only evident when the destination is revealed, and there, resting beneath the mature oaks, cypresses and pines, is a stone labyrinth that will seem very familiar to Arlingtonians who remember the healing garden at the old Whitman-Walker Clinic of Northern Virginia.
The labyrinth is the same one that once occupied the clinic’s property at Lee Highway and George Mason Drive, its stones pried from the earth when the clinic closed in 2009, the pieces of its seven-circuit path of contemplation painstakingly numbered and stored in a county warehouse until three acres of land became available at 10th Street North and North Barton Street.
“Our past and history is important to the future,” said Jay Fisette, an Arlington County Board member who was the clinic’s director from 1990 to 1998 and helped come up with the idea for the original labyrinth. “The whole healing garden could not be saved, but an important part of it was.”
The story of its relocation began several years before this, when the county received the use of the land from a developer and began talking to neighbors about what their plans for the space. Rocky Run Park, of which Barton is a part, was rebuilt for active recreational activities with playgrounds and ball courts. Neighbors sought a quieter, more contemplative space on the south end, near 10th Street North — someone even mentioned the possibility of a labyrinth.
Kathy von Bredow, a county landscape architect, walked through the property and saw potential in its large trees, which created a sense of isolation despite the nearby busy streets. She spotted a huge white oak that struck her as a “mother tree” that could give the site direction and focus. She knew the clinic’s labyrinth was in storage. It seemed to her that this was the place for it.
Caroline Temmermand, Arlington’s division chief for parks and natural resources, said there’s a context to this garden that’s very important to many members of the community. “My question was, could we build it in a reasonable amount of time, at a reasonable cost and make it have the qualities everyone wanted for it?”
Funded by the county’s neighborhood conservation plan, the labyrinth project would cost between $80,000 and $100,000, von Bredow estimated. That’s a lot cheaper than brand-new construction because so much of the building materials and labor were donated. In addition to the paving stones that make up the circular walk, large boulders and park benches came from the Whitman-Walker site. The county’s earth products yard provided crushed stone for the walkways and mulch for the landscape. Eagle Scouts from Alexandria pitched in, as did two teams of corporate volunteers.
When Arlington County employees first took the labyrinth out of storage, they were faced with a massive puzzle. Although the stones had been carefully numbered and mapped, the numbers had been written in chalk, and some had worn off. Fortunately, photos of the original path had been taken and some of the same people who created the original labyrinth pitched in to work on the new one.
Temmermand and von Bredow said the whole county parks crew spent countless hours and expended much energy making the site work. Bushes that attract birds were planted, stone washes that resemble stream beds were laid and small natural points of interest were built in. “When you look at it, we wanted you to feel like it was naturally there,” Temmermand said. “It’s a quiet ‘Wow.’ ”
The rebuilt labyrinth may have added resonance for the gay community. Even as late as the 1990s, when the District’s Whitman-Walker Clinic sought a site in Northern Virginia to serve patients who were HIV-positive or who had AIDS, Arlington was the only jurisdiction that welcomed them, said Fisette, who is gay. The clinic rented its space with a back lot tangled with weeds and overgrowth. Volunteers pitched in to clear it and design a private healing garden. Because clinic funds could not be spent on nonmedical initiatives, donated money and talent were necessary.
Mike Barnes was there then, and he is now lending his gardening skills to the new site. “I’m pretty sure more will be back,” he said. People are already finding the space, he said, without any official announcement. A couple of young adults were working on laptops from one of the benches last week, enjoying the quiet, peaceful surroundings. Barnes cited the volunteers from 10 years ago who helped build the original healing garden and called for new volunteers to help maintain the current site.
“One of the challenges going forward is creating a partnership, a sense of stewardship with the community,” von Bredow said. “It’s not the Whitman-Walker Clinic labyrinth anymore; it’s the labyrinth of Barton Park.”