Walking on foot, driving automobiles, riding carriages, hacks or carts, all of Washington was there to attend the inauguration of the West Potomac Park. It is April 17, 1909, and though the parade of motor vehicles may have kept some from hearing the music (“the noise of motor cars was incessant,” according to The Sun), much of the crowd had just witnessed a fine performance by the Philippine Constabulary Band.
“Mrs. Taft's initial promenade concert on Riverside Drive was pronounced an undoubted success…Almost every notable personage in Washington was seen,” reported the New York Daily Tribune.
From the beginning, the Taft presidency seemed to feature facets of the Tafts’ Philippine experience. A few years earlier, Taft had served as the first Civil Governor-General of the newly acquired U.S. colonial territory. Sympathetic to the Philippines, Taft was generally popular among Filipinos. He enacted a U.S.-style civil service system and judicial system. He established a new system of English-language public schools and recruited hundreds of new American teachers (the Thomasites). He built transportation networks and health care facilities.
When the Tafts moved into the White House, they brought with them acquisitions from their Philippine residence, including wicker and teakwood furniture and oriental tapestries. Their indispensable Filipino valet, Monico Lopez Lara (“the bright young Filipino”) joined the White House staff and merited feature articles in some U.S. newspapers and drew some speculations about his civil service status and pay (“Monico would not be placed on the Government payroll but would remain a private employee of the President," the Washington Times reported).
The same Philippine Constabulary Band–numbering some 80 musicians recruited from all over the Philippines, selected after going through “rigorous auditions,” and trained by African-American conductor Col. Walter Loving– performed at Taft’s blizzard-drenched inauguration. The Tafts also favored garden parties, much to the consternation of the White House staff. (Chief Usher Ike Hoover thought the idea impractical. The bugs and dampness on the balcony did not compare with the “quiet comfort” of the indoors, he said.)
The West Potomac Park, however, was entirely the first lady Mrs. Helen Taft’s creation, a vision of a new public space that would bring people together, one that she pursued immediately after her husband’s inauguration. In her memoir, Recollection of Full Years, she wrote, “That Manila could lend anything to Washington may be a surprise to some persons, but the Luneta is an institution whose usefulness to society in the Philippine capital is not to be overestimated.” The First Lady wanted to “convert Potomac Park into a glorified Luneta, where all Washington could meet, either on foot, or in vehicles, at five o’clock on certain evenings, listen to band concerts and enjoy such recreation as no other spot in Washington could afford.”
On April 1st that same year, the first lady drove alone to a recently built road called the Speedway (later renamed Potomac Drive) along the Potomac River. Her choices were swift: the location of the park (close to the Speedway, Potomac River and Tidal Basin), the inauguration day (April 17th), and the days of the new concert series (Wednesdays and Saturdays). Coincidentally, the Philippine Constabulary Band that was to play at the opening also performed regularly at the Luneta Park. Subsequent concerts—to this day--would feature the Marine Band. Driving around that day, Helen Taft imagined the springtime breeze cooling the audience as they listened to fine musical performances.
When the plan for the park was announced in the newspapers, Eliza Scidmore, a manager at the National Geographic and a writer for the New York Times, wrote Mrs. Taft, whom she met earlier in Japan, and suggested lining the park with flowering cherry blossom trees. Benito Legarda, the Philippine Resident Commissioner (and who also was said to have “worked on the Luneta”), attended one of the meetings between Scidmore and Mrs. Taft. A visiting Japanese scientist and a Japanese consul heard about the idea and, through their initial efforts, the Japanese government later offered a gift of a couple of thousand cherry trees from the city of Tokyo.
Only 16 days after driving along the Potomac, Mrs. Taft’s dream of a new public space and a new concert series had come true. The Washington Times proclaimed it “a new custom of the capital.” Nothing seemed to intimidate the new first lady. She smoked cigars, played poker and drove her own car. She had no qualms hauling her children halfway around the world to accompany her husband in the Philippines.
In the Philippines, she welcomed everyone to events she hosted, “refusing to sanction racially segregated gatherings,” according to one account, against the wishes of the military command and reflecting her dreams of inclusive public gatherings. She spoke her mind about her plans for the White House while the Roosevelts were still living in it, alienating Edith Roosevelt in the process. At President Taft’s inauguration, she broke precedent. Tradition dictated that the incoming and outgoing president ride back to the White House together; she accompanied the president instead.
On the day of the concert, the middle of the ellipse featured a white wooden octagonal band stand decorated with evergreens and flags. At 4 o’clock, people slowly trickled in, quickly occupying the prime spots closest to the bandstand. Ambassadors, ministers, cabinet members, senators and congressmen came with their wives, families and their guests (“swarms of prettily dressed women and their escorts,” the New York Daily Tribune gushed). Among the esteemed audience members were the “Hero of Manila Bay” Admiral George Dewey and his wife. Also in attendance Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who visited the Philippines in 1905 as her father President Roosevelt’s goodwill ambassador. (The Sultan of Sulu was said to have asked for her hand in marriage.) The Speedway was lined with vehicles of every kind (“horse drawn victorias and landaus, electric and gasoline motor cars, taxicabs and nearly every type of carriage,” wrote The Sun), though some 5,000 people were estimated to have arrived on foot by 6 o’clock. The president and the lady came without much fanfare, riding a White House automobile; but thousands of people soon moved toward them, applauding.
Five weeks later, Mrs. Taft would suffer a stroke, rendering her speechless for some time and making her disappear from public view for about a year. She would eventually recover and return to public life, directing her energies towards new causes, including an executive order “providing for the systematic inspection of all government buildings to improve sanitary conditions.”
The Philippine Constabulary Band would spend the rest of the year until October 1909 touring U.S. cities and impressing new audiences with their musicality and skill. Col. Loving, the band’s conductor, would retire some years later but would be called in from retirement to become the band’s advisor. He is thought to have died at the liberation of Manila in 1945.
Some years after the concert, President Taft would lose the election to Woodrow Wilson but would return eventually to Washington as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He remains the only man to hold the distinction of ever heading two branches of government.
Resident Commissioner Benito Legarda would serve out his term until around 1912. Later in 1909, a young Manuel Quezon would join him as the other Resident Commissioner, during whose term the U.S. Congress passed the Jones Law (1916), promising eventual Philippine Independence. It would take another 37 years and two world wars, however, before the Philippines finally gained its independence. No one present that day knew any of these of course. On that late spring afternoon in 1909 by the Potomac, the crowd waited for the music to begin.
Here is a 1910 recording of the Philippine Constabulary Band ("La Sampaguita"). This is from the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project of University of California Santa Barbara's Davidson Library.
Titchie Carandang-Tiongson is a freelance writer. Her articles have been published in Northern Virginia Magazine, Working Mom and Smart Parenting. She and her husband Erwin are working on a Filipino street map of Washington, D.C. documenting landmarks of Philippine American history and culture.