I never used to care about the Enid A. Haupt Memorial Garden, tucked between the Smithsonian Castle and Independence Avenue SW. The very name — both names: Enid and Haupt — struck me as dusty and old, and in my memory the garden itself seemed small and scrubby.
Then, earlier this winter, on one of those unseasonably springlike days, I visited the garden and I thought, “The Smithsonian wants to get rid of this?”
People sat and read on benches that were tucked into cozy little corners of the 4.2-acre garden. Little bits of sculpture were positioned here and there, too: urns and lampposts. The magnolia trees hadn’t had their buds nipped by frost yet and were just starting to swell. Birds chirped in the branches. I realized I probably hadn’t set foot in the garden for 20 years.
“When it was new, the garden was sort of spare, and you wondered, ‘Well, so what?’ ” said Richard Longstreth, an architectural historian at George Washington University. “But a good landscape designer, of course, does it with the idea of what it’s going to be like in maturity.”
Enid Haupt (1906-2005) was the publisher of Seventeen magazine and a philanthropist. Just as her namesake garden has reached maturity, it finds itself on the chopping block, as the Smithsonian seeks approval for a master plan that would revamp what’s called the South Mall Campus. That includes the area between the Castle, the Freer Gallery and the Arts and Industries Building.
Underneath are the subterranean Sackler and African Art museums. The roof leaks and part of the fix would involve scraping everything off and reconfiguring the entire area. The proposed design, by the Bjarke Ingels Group — a.k.a. BIG, a Danish architecture firm — would get rid of the Haupt garden and the two current aboveground museum entrances, which, like the spaces below, were designed by Jean-Paul Carlhian.
In their place would be something that, I have to admit, looks pretty cool. It resembles a massive grass-covered tablecloth lifted up at two corners. Those corners would be the entrances to the underground museums. In the artist’s conceptions, it’s very science-fictiony: a space port on a distant, Earthlike planet.
Longstreth attempted to tamp down my enthusiasm. “Before I became a historian I had training as an architect,” he said. “One thing we learned very early was don’t be too enraptured by elegant renderings. They’re designed to make you swoon.”
Longstreth is among those who think things should stay as they are.
“The garden itself is really a collaboration between the architect and a very prominent landscape architect named Lester Collins, who did a lot of work in and around Washington in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s but had a national reputation,” he said.
Longstreth has spearheaded a fight to save the garden, which includes nominating it for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
“If you’re trekking along with your family and come upon this garden, it’s a welcome place of respite and regeneration,” Longstreth said. “And I don’t see the new design fulfilling that function.”
The thing that bothers me about the new design is the grass. In BIG’s digital renderings, that swooping roof is planted mainly with sod, upon which little digital people lounge and cavort.
Grass — growing it, keeping it green — has been one of the Mall’s biggest headaches. Personally, I don’t mind it when the grass between the Capitol and the Washington Monument turns brown because it’s been trampled. The Mall is our back yard and should be played upon.
I predict that should the BIG turf go through, the “Keep Off the Grass” signs will go up.
While we’re on the subject of threatened outdoor places, let’s give a thought to Carter Barron Amphitheatre, the popular performance space at 16th and Colorado NW. The National Park Service announced last month that there won’t be any concerts there this summer. The stage is in dangerously poor shape.
The Park Service’s Emily Linroth told me it will cost about $500,000 to repair or replace it. A request has been put in for the next funding cycle. They wouldn’t get the money till 2019. And with $12 billion in deferred maintenance at Park Service sites across the country, there’s no guarantee they’ll get it at all. The amphitheater will remain dark for at least five years.
When it opened on Aug. 4, 1950, it was called the Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre, named for the 150th anniversary of Washington. The following year it was rededicated in honor of the late vice chairman of the sesquicentennial commission, a Loews Theater executive named Carter T. Barron who was known as “the link between government and show business.”
From the start, the venue welcomed integrated audiences. Performers there have included Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Kool & the Gang, Bruce Springsteen and Tuscadero.
Linroth said the Park Service is open to private funding. Hmm, any wealthy folks in town with a fondness for the name “Barron”? It wouldn’t take much to turn it into the Carter Barron Trump Amphitheatre.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.