Is there any space left on the Mall? With the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian Sept. 21, the officials in charge of Washington's main savanna have hoisted a "No Vacancy" sign.
"The last big site on the Mall, Congress said, is the Indian Museum," says Sally Blumenthal, a division chief of the National Park Service. That position has been endorsed at least officially by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Memorial Commission, as well as the Park Service -- all the bureaucratic lords of the federal lands in the city.
Location, Location, Location
With space running out, planners are attempting to divert new memorials and monuments to sites far from the Mall.
The Mall is done, says NCPC Chairman John V. Cogbill III. "Forever. We consider the Mall a finished work of civic art," he says.
Advocates of pending big museums beg to differ.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) for years fought, with many others, to win approval for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Nine months ago the okay came from the White House, and Lewis makes clear it needs a front-and-center location -- on the Mall or nearby. "The National Mall and the space around it is the front door to America. It is a symbol of our democracy," he says. "In the South, I remember when black people could not enter through the front door of many homes and businesses. I firmly believe that a National African American Museum should not be off the National Mall at some back door."
What about the proposed National Museum of the American Latino? How far away from the famous museums would it be? "Clearly a Mall positioning is the ideal and what everyone is trying to achieve," says Felix Sanchez, the executive director of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and a supporter of the Latino museum. "If you leave us on the periphery, it sends another signal that Latinos haven't yet joined American society."
The closing of the Mall to new construction has been proclaimed by bureaucracies with a sufficiently dizzying array of master plans. In Washington, however, as history has shown, the tides of politics and emotions can reverse any well-conceived declaration.
The Mall -- where throngs gather for the Fourth of July and the multitude of marches -- is a long rectangle with the Capitol at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other, and the Washington Monument in the middle. It occupies less than 200 acres. That's about three times the land covered by that other mall, Virginia's largest tourist destination: Potomac Mills. Washington's Mall is lined by venerated government buildings and museums, including four of the busiest in the world.
Planners in 2001 christened as "the Reserve" a roughly one-square-mile area surrounding and including the Mall. The Reserve stretches north to include the White House environs and south to include the Jefferson Memorial grounds. Congress has said in no uncertain terms that the Reserve has to be preserved and "the siting of new commemorative works is prohibited."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has vowed to protect the open spaces left there. "Literally, there is no more room on the Mall. It will lose its quality as our Mall if we try to crowd anything else on the Mall."
Surrounding the Reserve is 2.1 square miles of land and water. Call it the Semi-Close-to-the-Mall area; the bureaucrats call it Area I. On the north side its boundaries include Lafayette Square across from the White House, moving down 17th Street NW to Constitution Avenue and then bounding west around the Kennedy Center and up into Rock Creek Park. It then veers across the Potomac River and includes Lady Bird Johnson Park on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and turns back to the District to embrace the land near the Jefferson Memorial. It then skirts east on a diagonal past L'Enfant Plaza and back to the Capitol.
While most of the Semi-Close sites are a fair hike from the Mall itself, that area still encompasses most of the iconic department headquarters of official Washington, several of its grand boulevards, a good chunk of Potomac River frontage, and many parks. The NCPC master plan says only buildings and memorials of the highest significance should be in this swath.
A much larger section is what planners call Area II. Call it the Way-Beyond-the-Mall. It covers the rest of the District. In a 1997 plan, "Extending the Legacy: Planning America's Capital for the 21st Century," the NCPC urged that the placement of prominent buildings be spread out, even suggesting a move of the Supreme Court building to the RFK Stadium area, and rebuilding the Potomac River bridges so they would line up more aesthetically. This plan imagines museums and memorials shifted to North Capitol, South Capitol and East Capitol streets -- areas of the city that now range from gentrified to transitional to downright unsavory.
This Way-Beyond-the-Mall region offers sites for new museums and memorials that are far-flung indeed, not even accessible by Metro, much less within walking distance of the Mall. They include the intersection of Eastern Avenue and 16th Street NW -- a busy crossroads with a small grassy circle; the Washington side of Chain Bridge and Canal Roads NW -- a residential area with small open spaces; Daingerfield Island on George Washington Memorial Parkway -- a field that fronts the Potomac and a marina with a postcard view of the capital; Fort Davis Park in Southeast Washington, off Pennsylvania Avenue near the city line; and Eastern Avenue between Rhode Island and Michigan Avenues NE -- a residential area with underused parkland that is the gateway to Hyattsville.