Mall Site Is Chosen for Black History Museum

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The National Museum of African American History and Culture should be built on the Mall near the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian's Board of Regents decided yesterday.

Congress, which has had the museum under consideration since the 1980s, had instructed the Regents to pick among four sites, two on the Mall and two nearby. The location they selected, at the southwest corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, had drawn widespread support.

"We believe we have picked the best possible site for this museum," said Roger W. Sant, chairman of the Regents executive committee. At an afternoon news conference announcing the selection, Sant said the location rose above the others because of its "cleanliness," beauty and iconic placement.

No permanent structure has ever been built on the land -- hence its "cleanliness" -- but the location is familiar as an assembly point for tourist groups, a shortcut for joggers and as the home of a temporary snack bar.

Backers of the museum hope it will open by 2016.

The five-acre plot has belonged to the government since 1791 and was endorsed as a suitable place for a building by both the major plans for downtown Washington, the L'Enfant Plan of 1791 and the McMillan Plan of 1901-02. The State Department planned to build there in the early 20th century and there was talk of putting the World War II Memorial there in 1995.

Many advocates for the museum -- including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who in 1988 introduced legislation to establish it -- argued that a central location was imperative.

"I am more than happy and pleased," Lewis said yesterday afternoon. "I'm gratified and thankful that the Board of Regents saw fit to name this site for the museum. The Mall is really the front door to America, the front door to our democracy. If you want to see America and know America, including the history of the struggles, the Mall is the place to be."

Lewis was driving on the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, which commemorates the famous 1965 civil rights march, when he got the news. Lewis, a civil rights worker in 1965, was beaten and almost died at the hands of police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on "Bloody Sunday" when blacks began the historic march.

Yesterday's announcement was a significant step in making the long-sought museum a reality. As early as 1916 supporters asked Congress to erect a monument for black veterans and other notable African Americans. Various plans simmered until the 1980s, when members of Congress, historians and others pushed to have a museum that would be part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Lewis and two other Democrats, Rep. Mickey Leland of Texas and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, advanced the plan by fits and starts. In 1994 a bill passed the House but Jesse Helms blocked it in the Senate. Undaunted, Lewis, along with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), continued to push and in 2003 a bill authorizing the museum was signed by President Bush. Neither Leland nor Simon lived to see the bill signed.

Yesterday's Board of Regents vote was taken in a closed-door session. Chief Justice John Roberts is by custom chancellor of the Smithsonian and head of the Regents. Sant said the vote was not unanimous. Of the 17 regents, only Vice President Cheney was absent.

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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