Early in this century, Speaker of the House "Uncle Joe" Cannon expressed his feelings about placing an important national monument in a less-than-prime Washington location. "So long as I live, I'll never let them build a memorial to Abraham Lincoln in that God-damned swamp," he vowed.
The site he referenced, of course, is the site where the Lincoln Memorial now stands, and, thanks to an imaginative extension of the Mall, it is one of the world's most beautiful built-upon places.
But the story of Uncle Joe underscores the wisdom of the policy recently proposed by the Joint Task Force on Memorials. This policy defines the Mall as a "substantially completed" area for which no new memorials should be approved.
The policy advocates new memorial sites "in strategic locations beyond the traditional Monumental Core" and suggests that federal support help make undeveloped and privately owned sites as attractive to memorial sponsors as sites on federal parkland.
These new memorial locations would be strategic not just because of their visual impact and the extra space they would provide for visitor centers and museums. They also would have the potential to inspire civic pride and urban vitality at locations throughout the District.
As the task force states, the goal of having memorials across the city reflects a key recommendation of the National Capital Planning Commission's recent "Legacy" plan for Washington. It also honors Pierre L'Enfant's concept of a city of symbols, studded with monuments and landmarks and linked by reciprocal vistas. And it recalls the McMillan planners' audacious notion that memorial sites should be tools for turning Washington's liabilities -- even its swamps -- into assets.
But if an expansive civic vision was a tough sell in Joe Cannon's day, it is no less so in ours, and unfortunately, the task force isn't too forceful in calling for memorial building as an act of civic pride. Instead, its proposed policy sends a mixed message by retaining a premium zone -- "Area A" -- just outside the Mall. This reinforces the bad idea that commemorative clout equals proximity to the Washington Monument and invites proposals that are tasteful, approvable -- and negligible in terms of urban progress. This impression is exacerbated by designating the rest of the city as "Area B."
Area B should be on everyone's "A" list. Consider a few of the Washington sites that lend themselves both to monuments and urban development:
The South Capitol Street corridor as envisioned by the plan includes depressing the Southwest Freeway and creating a park-like street -- in effect a new Mall.
New York Avenue becomes a monumental gateway.
The heights of Arlington, now defaced with apartment buildings, offer sites with magnificent views of the city.
St. Elizabeths is an underused resource with a great view.
London has its Victoria Embankment. Whose name belongs on the banks of the Potomac and Anacostia?
Objections to these memorial sites come quickly and not only because of their distance from the Mall: The expense of moving a freeway is beyond the resources of memorial sponsors; the area is too dangerous for tourists; the neighborhood will oppose it.
In these and similar objections the spirit of Joe Cannon is alive and kicking. The speaker was no dummy, but when he looked out his window at the Capitol he saw only a swamp. It's the job of the design community, and especially of our federal planning bodies, to help our leaders see beyond the swamp, both literally and figuratively.
The Task Force on Memorials deserves our support. With a little shift in emphasis its proposed memorial policy could become a powerful tool for protecting and building our nation's capital.
-- Robert L. Miller
is an architect.