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Mall Site Is Chosen for Black History Museum

Carl Kinkade jogs along 14th Street near the site chosen yesterday for a museum of African American history.
Carl Kinkade jogs along 14th Street near the site chosen yesterday for a museum of African American history. (By Michel Ducille -- The Washington Post)

Now the site must be approved by a number of powerful planning agencies. Both the Commission of Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commission have expressed reservations about the Washington Monument site. But the NCPC chairman issued a congratulatory note yesterday. "This important museum will commemorate the profound contributions of African Americans to our nation's history. We are excited to have the opportunity to help make this project a reality," said John V. Cogbill III.

There are some drawbacks to the site. It is close to the Washington Monument, considered a possible target of terrorists, and consequently buildings in the area have to be set back from the curb at least 50 feet. It is also in a relatively low-lying part of the city; some of it is in a floodplain. But congestion may be the biggest drawback. Traffic at 14th and Constitution can be miserable, and parking is tough.

Many, if not most, visitors would arrive by public transportation. The site is two blocks from the Federal Triangle Metro and a slightly longer walk from the Smithsonian Metro station.

On the plus side, the site provides vistas to both ends of the Mall and up and down the broad span of 14th Street NW. It is only 800 feet from the Washington Monument and a short walk from the White House, both primary destinations of tourists and school groups.

Some expressed disappointment in the selection. "It is a lost opportunity. It has so many limitations. It is not going to allow for a signature building. It will be another Smithsonian building in the controlled architectural style that is dominated by the great monuments," said Judy Scott Feldman, director of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. The group had supported the Banneker Overlook site at the foot of L'Enfant Plaza as way to open up what it calls the "Third Century Mall."

Congress and the Smithsonian have already set up a small administrative staff to help shepherd the museum into being. One of the first jobs will be an extensive fundraising campaign. Smithsonian officials estimated yesterday that the museum will cost between $300 million and $400 million, and the funding will be split 50-50 with Congress.

The staff will also work to build a collection of materials for the museum, though some objects could come from the collections of the National Museum of American History, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The most recent museum added to the Mall is the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004. Officials estimate that the African American museum will be about the same size, 350,000 square feet.

Supporters said the museum's proximity to the National Museum of American History would be an advantage, and even suggested a passage between the two running under 14th Street. Walter E. Massey, another regent and the president of Morehouse College, said placing the African American experience in the proper context is important. "We see it in the mainstream of American history," he said.

A place on the Mall resonated with Lonnie G. Bunch, founding director of the museum. "I am delighted that this museum -- which is the product of the vision, creativity and hopes of many people and many generations -- finally has a home. We are honored to have a site on the National Mall, a site that will allow this museum to become a place that encourages millions of Americans to remember . . . and to revel in the richness of African American history and culture."

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