The National Mall speaks to the ages yet changes every day, an immortal reflection of fleeting life. This should not be possible, but the Mall is a unique space, where the eternal and the ephemeral sustain each other — cardboard slogans vying to become chiseled wisdom, the faces of the living glimpsed in the names of the dead on polished walls, Lincoln briefly blushing in his memorial with dawn breaking over the Washington Monument once more.
Heroes and ideals are enshrined, while streams of civic pilgrims come bearing new preoccupations — truths that are not yet self-evident, and may not even be true. New shrines are proposed as old ones resonate differently. The very land itself has been remade three times in 224 years and is being dug again now for renewal.
Other national commemorative grounds — Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Gettysburg National Military Park, Ellis Island in New York — don’t share the shimmering, miragelike quality of the Mall. (Nor do they host glow-in-the-dark kickball leagues , kite-flying exhibitions or giant Inca rope bridges.) The focused American stories of those other historic places are woven into the shambolic, all-embracing Washington esplanade. What’s permanent about the Mall is the bigger story it tells. Yet what makes it at once so elusive and engaging is that this bigger story, on closer inspection, is really the sum of all the stories, large and small and often contradictory — the ones we find on the Mall and the ones we carry there to share.
“The Mall is a place where we come to change realities,” says John Grant, a college instructor from Indiana, Pa. He is tooling down the path across from the National Gallery of Art in his rechargeable wheelchair, outfitted with a sun umbrella and a rear step to provide rides. He came to mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. He is purposefully wearing shorts to show he is comfortable with the shape of his legs — in contrast to Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose nearby memorial originally portrayed him seated but not obviously using a wheelchair; only later, at the insistence of disability activists, was a statue of FDR in his wheelchair added .
“I just love to watch people go by and express their opinions about things,” Grant says. “The Segway riders, the photo-takers, the pointers, the lookers, the singers. Here’s a woman wearing a sari. There’s a guy chasing a squirrel. It’s just wonderful, isn’t it? It’s part of being in America.”
A mile and a half away, retired Army Col. William E. Weber walks deliberately down the aisle between the Korean War Veterans Memorial wall and the 19 sculpted servicemen depicted on patrol in a grove of fragrant juniper bushes. He can see himself reflected in the wall: powder-blue sports coat over a white shirt with black suspenders. About three hours into an all-night battle near Wonju in 1951, an enemy grenade blew off his right arm. Luckily for him, it was 30 degrees below zero. The blood congealed.
“I felt no pain,” he recalls. “I simply continued to lead my company.”
Five hours later, a mortar round took his right leg.
“Obviously, that put me down.”
A photo of Weber was the sculptor’s model for an infantryman on the right side of the patrol, the one with the bayonet strapped to his belt. Now 89, with his prosthetic leg fitted into black suit pants, sock and polished loafer, Weber studies his young warrior visage, with its eyebrows arched in a permanent state of alert.
“I was firm and concentrated.”
Weber has just led a ceremony to read aloud the names of the 36,574 Americans killed or missing in the war. It took three days. It’s part of an effort to persuade Congress to add the names to the memorial, similar to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. All the names, each one with his or her own story.
“The Mall doesn’t belong to the bureaucrats,” Weber says. “It belongs to the people of the United States, and it’s their choice what they wish to have on the Mall.”
Two centuries of wrangling among bureaucrats and the people, plus politicians and artists, have made the National Mall a permanent record of passing certainties. Each generation contributes notions of what is worthy to be remembered, and how.
Pierre L’Enfant , who drafted the original plan in 1791, designed a manicured Mall intricately plotted with vistas highlighting the executive and legislative branches of the young democracy. He proposed a single monument, honoring George Washington, near where the Washington Monument was completed decades later.
The brilliant French city planner lost political support through insufferable obstinacy and was forced to resign, or was fired — accounts vary. He haunted the halls of Congress trying to get paid, before dying penniless many years later in West Hyattsville, Md.
Nearly a hundred years ago, the Mall’s stewards could imagine no more essential a drama to memorialize than the Civil War. They skipped right over World War I. (The elegant D.C. War Memorial, completed in 1931, is local, not national, honoring area residents.) The Mall had recently been lengthened by a third, with acres west of the Washington Monument filled in where the Potomac River used to flow. Planners framed the expanded grounds at either end with totems of the existential fight for the Union: the statue of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (1922 ) at the foot of the U.S. Capitol lawn, slouched and somber on his horse, possessed of hard-earned, unromanticized truth, facing west toward his commander-in-chief in the Lincoln Memorial (1922).
Then came World War II, Korea and Vietnam, memorialized in reverse order, in 1982, 1995 and 2004. The Grant statue is now an afterthought, and the Civil War framing is played down. World War II enjoys the significance of centrality, between Washington and Lincoln.
Yet even the best-laid planning can’t corral the stories and yarns and legends inscribed on the Mall — they call and respond across the centuries, as when Marian Anderson almost single-handedly enlarged the meaning of the Lincoln Memorial.
The memorial was intended as a marble homage to the savior of the Union. It barely hinted at emancipation (in an inscrutable mural tucked near the ceiling) and ignored the question of civil rights for all men and women. On Easter Sunday 1939, after Anderson was barred from giving a concert in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because of her race, the African American contralto sang for a large integrated crowd from the steps of the memorial.
... Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing. ...
After Anderson, vibrations of a great, unfinished struggle became an unmistakable quality of the shadows gathered beneath Lincoln’s brooding figure. Only in retrospect did the words of the second inaugural address carved into the memorial’s wall seem to presage the updated purpose of this bone-white temple.
... [L]et us strive on to finish the work we are in. ...
... It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. ...
An American dream that was still being defined, and redefined, before our eyes on the Mall.
Now the memorial incorporates King not just spiritually but literally. The spot where he stood is etched with “I Have a Dream” and his name. Visitors sprinkle water from their plastic bottles onto the paving stone to bring out the words more clearly in the blazing sun. They pose for pictures with the Washington Monument soaring behind them and duplicated in the mirror of the Reflecting Pool.
“Can you see the monument?”
“Yes, Mom. It’s taller than you.”
Michelle Chin, a planner with the District, whose mother it is — Yvonne Alford of Hyattsville, a Jamaican immigrant celebrating her 60th birthday — sweeps her arm from King’s marker at the Lincoln toward the White House, home of the first black president, and over to King’s own memorial on the Tidal Basin.
“You can see the past and the future,” Chin says, “just like the monument reflected in the water.”
As you roam your personal Mall, you cross in and out of other people’s Malls.
At the King Memorial, a father translates the slain hero’s stone-carved words into German for his young daughter.
... We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. ...
At the National World War II Memorial another German, as it happens, listens reverently to the bugling of taps by a retired Marine Band member. Hans-Peter Wild was born in 1941 and remembers the decency of American troops. Now he’s a major donor to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.
“I’m trying to give back for what the American military has done for Germany,” he says.
Nearby, Jonathan Slasinski and Natalia Thomley pose for wedding pictures. Slasinski stands by his grandmother, who holds a folded American flag and a picture of his late grandfather, her husband, a veteran of the war: three generations whose story of this day, in this place, may be handed down for generations more.
The Mason memorial, whose existence is as little known as Mason’s contribution to the Bill of Rights, is one of those surprises the Mall yields, like the Cuban Friendship Urn (1928), located like Mason near Jefferson.
“Who is George Mason?” a woman asks a U.S. Park Police officer inside the information office of the Jefferson Memorial.
“I’m not 100 percent sure myself,” says the officer.
Unmistakable at all hours are the echoes of the unseen Mall, the one constructed in layers of emotional archaeology by all the acts of defiance and celebration that have happened here. The planners didn’t foresee popular demonstrations with a protest edge taking over the grounds. Yet by the 1960s, the Mall supplanted Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol as the prized platform to be occupied by movements seeking to earn a place in the American psyche.
In 1985, when the death toll in San Francisco was spiking, AIDS activist Cleve Jones closed his eyes “and I could see the National Mall covered in fabric,” he says.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt, with handmade panels celebrating the dead, grew so large that the only place it was ever completely unrolled — five times over the years — was the Ellipse and the Mall, where, in 1996, it covered most of the ground between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
“The National Mall is the center of our country,” Jones says. “It is where we take our greatest hopes, our deepest grief and our greatest rage.”
In that spirit have come the marches against war, abortion and globalization; the rallies for jobs, choice, rights and freedom; the carnivals of inauguration — each a living monument to the First Amendment, enveloping the Mall with the singular euphoria of tens of thousands of people passionately convened with one righteous mind, their tales of injustice and calls for action issuing forth in chants, on homemade signs and via images beamed to a watching world.
The transformation and repurposing of the common ground continue. We can’t help adding to Lincoln’s burden by silently offering him our own.
“I have loved Lincoln since I learned to read. Now I’m 61,” says Meena B. Panday, who is having a picture taken with her husband, Bhairaja Panday. They’re visiting from Kathmandu. He used to work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“If the world survives, it will be because we managed ethnic and race issues. That’s why Lincoln is so important,” Bhairaja Panday says.
Lincoln is one of the statues on the Mall we can look in the eye. Just inside the threshold of the memorial is the vantage to meet his gaze — infinitely sad and wise, as if he, too, were contemplating the past and the future.
In a tourist-free clearing to the right, a man in a camouflage cap throws his head back and reads every word of the second inaugural address on the wall.
“These are the ideals I fought for,” says Mike Curry, a Navy veteran from Missouri who helped escort oil tankers from Kuwait in the early 1980s. “I brought my wife and three kids so they’ll know what it means. Especially nowadays.”
We come looking for comfort and inspiration, and as often we may find challenge. Large color posters of aborted fetuses greet visitors on the steps leading down to the Reflecting Pool. A sound system plays hypnotic music mixed with a recording of King’s “Dream” speech.
... [M]ake justice a reality for all of God’s children. ...
“Looks like we have some First Amendment activity,” an astute tourist says to a park ranger giving a tour.
“Three activities, actually, if you look closely,” says the ranger.
The National Park Service grants about 3,000 permits a year for vigils, protests, festivals, races, rallies, concerts, sports, weddings and movie shoots on the Mall and nearby parks. About 1,000 are First Amendment expressions, more in years when a president is inaugurated.
On one side of the abortion protesters, Jehovah’s Witnesses are handing out the “Good News From God!” On the other, Vietnam veterans’ supporters are keeping a POW-MIA vigil around the clock in a shack known as the Last Firebase.
“What better teaching prop can you have than the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial, with Abraham Lincoln’s words on slavery, the equality issue of his day,” says Mark Harrington, national director of Created Equal, organizer of the anti-abortion display, who led a group from Ohio. “And Dr. King’s words ... on the equality issue of his day? We’re here because of the equality issue of our day.”
Another tourist is offended. “Do you think that should be allowed here?” he says to the ranger. “I don’t.”
“As a civil servant, I have no opinion,” the ranger says without breaking stride on his tour.
The position of the graphic posters forces people to higher ground to take clear photographs of the view across the pool to the monument. That’s another lesson of the Mall: For the most part, the First Amendment takes precedence.
“You may not get the perfect photo,” Harrington says. “That’s something we as Americans should thank God for.”
In 2003 , Congress declared the National Mall “a substantially completed work of civic art.” The point was to ward off any more memorials or monuments. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (2011), the National Museum of African American History and Culture (expected 2016) and an education center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (still fundraising) were grandfathered in.
But the congressional edict was like framing a snapshot of the sea and ordaining that to be its final appearance. Even if nothing new were built, the Mall is always projecting new portraits of who we are, or who we’re trying to be.
As Congress decreed immutability, the Mall was already entering another epoch of physical and psychological change. The 9/11 terrorist attacks proved that unremarkable agents could rise up and cause the most cherished constructions to fall. One of the first reactions of the security chiefs was to close the west steps of the Capitol, depriving us, probably forever, of the most authoritative and breathtaking view of the Mall, which was designed, first and last, to be appreciated as a place of vistas on democracy.
Now measures against mortal danger are designed into the Mall, and unprecedented precautions are taken whenever the multitudes gather. The Jefferson Memorial is defended by a perimeter of jersey barriers and planters. On the hillside of the Washington Monument, curved sidewalks and low walls encourage a leisurely traverse, but their main function is to thwart truck bombs.
Still, it’s possible to find a more hopeful narrative being drafted into the Mall. Over the years, the Mall consumed the most electricity and potable water of any national park. That began to change a few years ago when the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool was rebuilt to draw water from the Tidal Basin. Other pools will follow. Also, the main source of irrigation for the turf between the Washington Monument and the Capitol is being switched from drinking water to rainwater captured in enormous new underground cisterns.
The items are called for in a restoration plan launched by the National Park Service five years ago. The Mall can barely handle its more than 25 million annual visitors, yet 40 million a year are expected by 2030. Deferred maintenance has been estimated at nearly half a billion dollars. Taxpayer funds are no longer sufficient to tend America’s front yard, so the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall has raised $53 million, and the National Park Foundation also solicits private support.
In an era of dwindling resources for the nation and the planet, can the Mall be a model of how to adapt? Something else the Mall could symbolize for the ages.
A barometer will be Constitution Gardens, just east of the Vietnam wall. It features an algae-choked lagoon fed by drinking water where everyone has forgotten there is a memorial to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. An idea gaining traction would restore the 38 acres as a sustainable urban park-within-the-park. It would speak not just of American history, but also of ecology, and of the transformation of the land from the time when what we call Constitution Avenue NW was a canal, and a lock keeper lived in that shuttered stone cabin at the corner of 17th Street NW.
A renewed Constitution Gardens would be the Mall’s first monument to the land.
Steve Hispanski, who works at a UPS store in Kennesaw, Ga., gets in line with hundreds of others for a trip to the top of the Washington Monument.
From 500 feet up, he is struck by the sight of the Mall churned up into huge piles of dirt between 14th and Seventh streets — the turf restoration project — and the Capitol dome sheathed in scaffolding for repairs.
“It’s kind of iconic and metaphoric to see the changes we as a country feel,” he says. “The progress pops out at you, not just in visual terms of building and construction workers, but metaphorically in terms of a developing, maturing nation.”
Down on the National Mall, the perpetual assembly gusts and curls with the mobile clarity of a cloud — tourists and heroes and ghosts, all their questions and lessons filtering into the national consciousness.
The leaves rustle in the old white mulberry tree on the Washington Monument grounds. It’s the only oasis of shade on the central strip of the Mall, hence its popularity. Its six gnarled trunks are bowed low to the ground like lumpy recliners, the bark polished by a million fannies.
Neither planned nor landscaped, its seeds are thought to have found their way to the Mall around 1910 — before the Lincoln Memorial, before most everything except the Washington Monument itself. The tree shaded the marchers for jobs and freedom on their way to listen to King, and sheltered untold others drawn to the Mall before and since.
Some of its great branches must be wired for support, while green, sapling-size shoots spread like a bet on the future. The mulberry endures, generous and patient, its own sort of monument. A witness to history, still finding a shape that no one can yet fully see.
David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.