America's Unkempt Front Yard

With its rusty fixtures, peeling paint and trampled lawn, the Mall has long been in need of a facelift.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The latch is missing from the stall door in the public restroom south of the Washington Monument. The hinges are bent. The partition is wobbly. Paint is peeling from the ceiling. Rust stains the toilet fixtures, and two signs on a wall warn in red letters: "No Bathing."

Outside, along the two-and-a-quarter-mile strip of green between the Capitol and the Potomac River known as the Mall, broad swaths of grass are trampled to dust. Light fixtures are broken or missing. The ornamental brick circles around the famed elms are buried under dirt and gravel.

Reflecting pools are cloudy with muck. An underground irrigation system is inoperable. And the oldest structure on the Mall has missing and boarded up windows.

The Mall, the historic stretch of green known as "America's front yard," has long needed a facelift. The National Park Service says it needs $350 million in deferred maintenance.

People in power have started to notice the shabbiness.

Last week, a House Appropriations subcommittee recommended an extra $100 million for upgrades and maintenance. In April, the Bush administration announced a $2.2 million public-private program to erect new signs on the Mall. And in November, the Trust for the National Mall was established to help raise private donations.

"We certainly have a lot of people who are coming to realize how important this place is," Peggy O'Dell, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said last week.

The Park Service says national parks across the country need $6 billion in deferred maintenance, a figure that has more than doubled in eight years. The Mall draws 20 million visitors a year, more than the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite parks combined. It is the location of the nation's most famous monuments and memorials and the site of some of the country's most historic public gatherings.

"It's a place that people come and they use hard, and it shows its wear," O'Dell said. "It's showing its age, and it's showing its wear."

The grass has been battered by giant public events, as it is this month with workers setting up the mammoth encampment of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

"It got this way through complete and total inattention," D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said. "You've got to keep the lawns mowed. But if nobody's looking, you don't have to do much more than that."

Not only was nobody looking, critics say, but few Washington insiders seemed to care.

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