Here, Even Icons Need IDs

Park Service Wants Tourist-Friendly Signs for Mall Monuments

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009; Page B01

The two Belgian tourists paused on the pathway near the Washington Monument to answer a question.

Could they identify the towering white obelisk before them?

They examined their map. "We think, the Ellipse," said Dien Haemhouts, 24, of Antwerp. Told their mistake, they laughed. "Ah, the Washington Monument," Haemhouts said. "Okay."

It was understandable. They had never been to Washington before. There was no sign nearby identifying the monument. And so the two tourists found themselves in the midst of a fresh debate: Do icons like the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial need signs announcing what they are?

The National Park Service, which is about to install an extensive new system of signs on the Mall, says yes. Many foreign and American tourists have no clue what they're looking at or what to expect when they arrive, the Park Service says. Officials say, for example, that they often get calls from the public asking if there is a Nordstrom on the Mall.

But some members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which must approve the new sign system, as well as American tourists interviewed on a cold day last week, say no to such signs. "Just looking at it," Minnie Glenn, 50, of Park Hall, Md., said of the monument. "It's self-defining."

The debate arises as the Mall is about to get a new $2.2 million sign system, funded by the federal government and the private Trust for the National Mall. Design research is underway, with a view to replacing the mishmash of signs on the Mall with a more uniform and user-friendly system that will probably use a series of color-coded pylons.

"There are hundreds of mismatched signs on the Mall," Wayne Hunt, whose firm is researching the new system, told the arts commission last month at a meeting where proposed signs were reviewed. "The Lincoln Memorial has 44 mismatched signs."

Across the Mall, there are signs with directions, signs with warnings, signs with rules. "Please Stay on the Sidewalks," reads one at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "Quiet" is called for at the Lincoln Memorial. "No Guns or Ammunition," says one near the Washington Monument.

When the question of formal signs came up, several commission members said signs seemed unnecessary and would be a blot on the landscape. "What does it say in front of the pyramids?" Pamela Nelson, vice chairman, wondered of Egypt's famous tombs. "Is there a sign in front of the pyramids?"

Commission member Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk asked: "Do you need a sign in front of the Washington Monument? I don't think so."

In a letter to the Park Service, commission Secretary Thomas E. Luebke wrote that the commission "strongly discouraged the use of the monument-type sign to identify buildings and memorials on the National Mall."


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