Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tourist destination number 1

Above: The National Mall circa 1900, taken from the Smithsonian Castle facing the Washington Monument

Visitors to Washington DC today flock to the National Mall, undoubtedly one of the city’s most iconic sights. Interestingly enough it is also one of the city’s most fluid spaces, constantly changing as new administrations and generations of designers seek to make their mark on this grand public landscape.

Certainly, the Mall has been around since the beginning, conceived of in Pierre L’Enfant’s 1790 city plan as “a grand avenue 400 feet in breadth, and bordered with gardens,” that would serve to visually connect the new Capitol building with a still un-designed monument. Plans for the Washington Monument were later drawn up by prominent early American architect Robert Mills, and the towering obelisk was set to sit on axis with the White House, creating the ultimate axial triumvirate of White House, Monument and Capitol Building

However, L’Enfant’s plan was carried out slowly as the city emerged from the swamp, and it wasn’t until 1848 that construction was begun on the Monument using a modified version of Mill’s original design. As the structure began to rise, it became apparent that somewhat accidentally, the site chosen was about 370 feet east and 125 feet south of the location that L’Enfant had intended, tragically breaking the sacred axial relationships. Luckily, the times ‘they were a-changing’, and in his 1851 plan for the Mall, landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing saw this mistake as his opportunity to turn the space into a sprawling romantic landscape more in tune with the Victorian sensibilities now in vogue. By the end of the 19th century the Mall had become an amazing bucolic landscape scattered with odd trees, the occasional sheep, and eventually bisected by a railroad.

This ‘loose and free’ version of the Mall was fairly short lived. After the earth shattering Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, architecture across the US took a right turn and began emulating the simplified Neo Classical buildings that had populated the fair’s stunning ‘White City’. City beautiful movements were established in major metropolitan areas all over the country, and a senator from Michigan, Robert McMillan, took it upon himself to see that Washington DC didn’t fall behind the trend. He formed a committee, later to be named the McMillan Commission, and with a roster of such architectural greats as Charles McKim, Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., and Daniel Burnham - principal architect of the Chicago Fair, they composed a new plan for Washington in 1901.

The McMillan plan was a harkening back to L’Enfant’s original designs for the city, and included the restoration of the National Mall. The railroad was removed, the central axis was re-turfed, and all trees were moved to the edges to once again give the effect of a “broad avenue.” This restructuring also re-emphasized the original axis of the Washington Monument and Capitol Building, later strengthened by the addition of the to 1922 Lincoln Memorial, and then completed, some would argue, with the 1960 construction of RFK Stadium to the east. New buildings along the Mall, like the 1910 Museum of Natural History and the 1941 National Gallery of Art, were designed using a streamlined classical ideology inspired by the Columbian Exposition. Today the red brick Smithsonian Castle, constructed by James Renwick Jr. in 1847, remains a lone survivor of the romanticized Victorian Mall.

Despite it’s major and lasting effect on the Mall’s landscape, the McMillan plan was actually only ever 50 percent completed. Perhaps because of this, every so often the idea of a more complete or finished National Mall is revisited. During World War I, several temporary structures were put up alongside the Reflecting Pool to house the influx of wartime workers, and were actually not fully removed until 1971. Following this, in 1973 a new plan to clean up the Mall and rework the pedestrian walkways and transportation systems was instituted in time for the National Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Now a hallmark of the Mall’s landscape, new monuments also occasionally make their way into the mix, with the most recent being the World War II memorial, completed in 2004. The subject of much debate during its construction, its showy and copious water features are now beloved by tourists and residents seeking refuge from DC’s insidious swamp summers.

Currently, there is another Mall master plan on the boards, led by the National Park Service - the Mall’s official steward, and the non-profit National Trust for the Mall. Plans available here seem to show a tidying of the landscape’s more recent bucolic additions - the hot dog stands - and an increase in public friendly facilities like restrooms and water fountains. For those who are interested, they are holding hearings for the public in the upcoming weeks, offering you the opportunity to be a part of the history of this ever-changing national landmark.

Sources: “The Washington Mall Circulation Systems”. Prepared for the National Park Service, Department of the Interior, United States of America by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. October 1973.

The National Park Service, “The L’Enfant and McMillan Plans”,

Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division:

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