A Sept. 15 article incorrectly said that two new memorials on the Mall were approved after the National Capital Planning Commission called in 2001 for a "Reserve" area including the Mall to be off-limits to new construction. The commission approved the Constitution Gardens site for the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial in 1988 and approved the Tidal Basin site for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in 1999. (Published 9/18/04)
Is there any space left on the Mall? With the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian Sept. 21, the officials in charge of Washington's main savanna have hoisted a "No Vacancy" sign.
"The last big site on the Mall, Congress said, is the Indian Museum," says Sally Blumenthal, a division chief of the National Park Service. That position has been endorsed at least officially by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Memorial Commission, as well as the Park Service -- all the bureaucratic lords of the federal lands in the city.
The Mall is done, says NCPC Chairman John V. Cogbill III. "Forever. We consider the Mall a finished work of civic art," he says.
Advocates of pending big museums beg to differ.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) for years fought, with many others, to win approval for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Nine months ago the okay came from the White House, and Lewis makes clear it needs a front-and-center location -- on the Mall or nearby. "The National Mall and the space around it is the front door to America. It is a symbol of our democracy," he says. "In the South, I remember when black people could not enter through the front door of many homes and businesses. I firmly believe that a National African American Museum should not be off the National Mall at some back door."
What about the proposed National Museum of the American Latino? How far away from the famous museums would it be? "Clearly a Mall positioning is the ideal and what everyone is trying to achieve," says Felix Sanchez, the executive director of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and a supporter of the Latino museum. "If you leave us on the periphery, it sends another signal that Latinos haven't yet joined American society."
The closing of the Mall to new construction has been proclaimed by bureaucracies with a sufficiently dizzying array of master plans. In Washington, however, as history has shown, the tides of politics and emotions can reverse any well-conceived declaration.
The Mall -- where throngs gather for the Fourth of July and the multitude of marches -- is a long rectangle with the Capitol at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other, and the Washington Monument in the middle. It occupies less than 200 acres. That's about three times the land covered by that other mall, Virginia's largest tourist destination: Potomac Mills. Washington's Mall is lined by venerated government buildings and museums, including four of the busiest in the world.
Planners in 2001 christened as "the Reserve" a roughly one-square-mile area surrounding and including the Mall. The Reserve stretches north to include the White House environs and south to include the Jefferson Memorial grounds. Congress has said in no uncertain terms that the Reserve has to be preserved and "the siting of new commemorative works is prohibited."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has vowed to protect the open spaces left there. "Literally, there is no more room on the Mall. It will lose its quality as our Mall if we try to crowd anything else on the Mall."
Surrounding the Reserve is 2.1 square miles of land and water. Call it the Semi-Close-to-the-Mall area; the bureaucrats call it Area I. On the north side its boundaries include Lafayette Square across from the White House, moving down 17th Street NW to Constitution Avenue and then bounding west around the Kennedy Center and up into Rock Creek Park. It then veers across the Potomac River and includes Lady Bird Johnson Park on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and turns back to the District to embrace the land near the Jefferson Memorial. It then skirts east on a diagonal past L'Enfant Plaza and back to the Capitol.
While most of the Semi-Close sites are a fair hike from the Mall itself, that area still encompasses most of the iconic department headquarters of official Washington, several of its grand boulevards, a good chunk of Potomac River frontage, and many parks. The NCPC master plan says only buildings and memorials of the highest significance should be in this swath.
A much larger section is what planners call Area II. Call it the Way-Beyond-the-Mall. It covers the rest of the District. In a 1997 plan, "Extending the Legacy: Planning America's Capital for the 21st Century," the NCPC urged that the placement of prominent buildings be spread out, even suggesting a move of the Supreme Court building to the RFK Stadium area, and rebuilding the Potomac River bridges so they would line up more aesthetically. This plan imagines museums and memorials shifted to North Capitol, South Capitol and East Capitol streets -- areas of the city that now range from gentrified to transitional to downright unsavory.
This Way-Beyond-the-Mall region offers sites for new museums and memorials that are far-flung indeed, not even accessible by Metro, much less within walking distance of the Mall. They include the intersection of Eastern Avenue and 16th Street NW -- a busy crossroads with a small grassy circle; the Washington side of Chain Bridge and Canal Roads NW -- a residential area with small open spaces; Daingerfield Island on George Washington Memorial Parkway -- a field that fronts the Potomac and a marina with a postcard view of the capital; Fort Davis Park in Southeast Washington, off Pennsylvania Avenue near the city line; and Eastern Avenue between Rhode Island and Michigan Avenues NE -- a residential area with underused parkland that is the gateway to Hyattsville.
These plans come from a December 2001 document from the NCPC, "Memorials and Museums Master Plan," that outlined how construction away from the Mall could be achieved. "No undeveloped sites for major new museums within the area between 3rd and 14th Streets remain," the report asserted, somewhat debatably. "Nevertheless, as evidenced by current proposals, efforts to establish new storehouses of our nation's treasures abound."
The plan says there are enough ceremonial spaces -- and they have suggested 100 -- to fit all memorial needs over the next 50 years.
To the eye, there is plenty of land. The Indian Museum has filled 4.25 acres, and there are equivalent plots all over Washington. Of course, some of the open areas are dedicated to baseball and other sports, and others just for natural beauty.
But the Mall, the expansive lane of Washington's brick and marble symbols, is a mainstay in people's vision, and has played a prominent role since planner Pierre L'Enfant mapped out the city for George Washington. The L'Enfant plan dates from 1791 and laid out ceremonial spaces, fountains and memorials, and the location for Congress and the White House. It was updated and expanded by the McMillan Plan in 1901, which restored the uninterrupted sweep of the Mall, then lanced by a railroad station. It created the park as seen today and suggested cornerstones such as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln.
Washingtonians have been tinkering ever since.
Political Tug of War
Some believe politics will always make room for additions to the Mall. "All it takes is for Congress to make one exception," says Judy Scott Feldman, the organizer of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a nonprofit group that opposed the building of the World War II Memorial, arguing that it disrupted the vista between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
Other stakeholders hold fast to the official view and don't want the Mall overbuilt. They have plenty of clout. The barons of federal lands include the Park Service (part of the U.S. Department of the Interior), the NCPC, the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Memorial Commission. They survey a vast realm, including 229 museums and memorials, jumping across the Potomac River into Virginia with Arlington National Cemetery and the Potomac shore along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Yet even within the power structure, there is disagreement about how untouchable the Mall is. Frederick Lindstrom, acting secretary of the Fine Arts Commission, says: "Cities are an organic, living entity. The Mall is the same way. It will continue to change and I don't know how you can make a blanket statement. I feel there is additional space on the Mall," he says.
History might be on the skeptics' side. After NCPC said in a 1966 formal survey that the Mall didn't need any other museums, the building kept going. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden opened in 1974. The East Building of the National Gallery of Art opened in 1978. In the 1980s the Smithsonian needed space for two collections and solved the Mall squeeze by digging down. It decided to build the national museums of African art and Asian art underground in a space south of the Smithsonian Castle close to Independence Avenue. They opened in 1987. A space was found for the Holocaust Museum, which opened in 1993, on 14th Street NW, within what are now the Reserve boundaries.
There are already exceptions even to the most recent moratorium of last November. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Education Center, a facility that will instruct visitors about the Vietnam War and will be close to the Wall itself, was approved by President Bush in November 2003. It will be constructed underground.
Since the Reserve has been designated, a number of memorials have been approved. One is the memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which will be on four acres at the Tidal Basin on Independence Avenue. Another project is the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial, now in the fundraising stages. Its site is in Constitutional Gardens, also part of the Reserve.
Future Neighbors Uncertain
The African American museum, a $300 million project, is being planned by the Smithsonian with a target opening date of 2013. In its final report last year, the presidential commission studying its feasibility made it clear that the nearer the 350,000-square-foot structure was to the Mall, the better. Where it will end up, however, is anyone's guess.
One suggested site is on the Mall in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building. That would require a major conversion and, most likely, underground expansion. A second is also on the Mall, a trapezoid-like plot opposite the Washington Monument grounds. It is bounded by 14th and 15th streets NW and sits largely unoccupied between Constitution Avenue and Madison Drive. A third site is just outside the Reserve, down the street from the Holocaust Museum, short of the 14th Street Bridge. The last one is on Maine Avenue, technically in Area II. It is a concrete circle and non-working fountain called the 10th Street Overlook or Benjamin Banneker Park, dedicated to the self-taught African American mathematician who was part of the surveying team that laid out the capital.
Robert L. Wilkins is a Washington lawyer who served on the African American museum's presidential commission. He prefers the 15th and Constitution site because not only is it on the Mall, it is close to the National Museum of American History. "It is important symbolically for this museum to be in the right location. This history is at the centrality of American history," he says. With more than five acres of grass, the spot is large enough to accommodate a museum.
Looking back at the long path the idea of an African American museum has taken since it was authorized by Congress in 1929, Wilkins says the Mall proper was always cited as a location for the museum. In both the L'Enfant Plan and the McMillan Plan a building was designated for that 15th Street site on the Mall. It was once even a destination for the State Department. "For anyone to say it would destroy the Mall by placing a museum at that site is folly," he argues, and points out that interviews with potential donors show decreased interest in the museum as the location gets further and further from the Mall.
The Park Service opposes the 15th Street location, but Lindstrom of the Fine Arts Commission says he likes it. Ideally, he says, the museum should be part of an extension of the American History territory. "It is American history," he says. A stand-alone structure would fit on the corner of the plot, with plenty of room left over. "Right now there is a kiosk for the Washington Monument refreshments. Sometimes it looks like the site of the National Portapotty Convention. NPS objects to me characterizing it that way, but that square is underutilized," he says.
The Banneker Overlook has its fans. The National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over the land, prefers it for the museum. It is a hefty eight-minute walk down 10th Street SW from the Smithsonian Castle, into the hypermodern stone terrain of L'Enfant Plaza, stuck out over a plethora of railroad tracks and freeway. Its core is only a little over two-thirds of an acre. However, a building project could include the hillside and perhaps extend over Maine Avenue toward the fish markets, pushing the footprint up to 10 acres.
Despite its current dreariness, the site has a panoramic view.
That park, said Blumenthal, "has one of the most spectacular views in the city because it is high. On a good day you can see to Alexandria and take in the Washington Channel and the Jefferson Memorial." Lindstrom thinks it has possibilities, if all the adjoining property is used. Feldman, of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, also favors the Banneker site and says the planners and project supporters just have to think differently about the ceremonial core of the city. She says there is plenty of space, but people have to use it wisely. "The Mall is a living symbol. It is not finished, but we can think more broadly about how it can grow," she says. For example, she endorsed the adding of a Martin Luther King Jr. quote to the Lincoln Memorial to show the historical continuity between the two centuries.
One of the unknown factors, says Blumenthal, is what will make some of the new suggested areas acceptable. Will they be viewed as ripe for development by sponsors of memorials and museums, who would therefore be willing to be pioneers in an untested area? The downtown Penn Quarter and Gallery Place are crowded with new attractions. Some museums are doing well, such as the International Spy Museum, and others are faltering, such as the City Museum. "People will say 'I want to be there,' " when an area becomes desirable, says Blumenthal. "If you have a no-build zone, then clearly you have to say where you can build," she says.
So will the Indian Museum ever get company? Rep. Lewis says it should, and that history should be the guiding hand, not just planners' dreams. "In the past few years, we have witnessed the building of the Holocaust Museum and the Native American museum. Although I support these museums, it is my belief that no other group in America has suffered longer under such a vicious and evil system of oppression than African Americans -- over 300 years of slavery and years of Jim Crow laws," he says.
The Mall, like those stories yet to be told on the Mall, may not be finished.