When someone mentions the national Mall, your thoughts likely go to one of the monuments that stud the park that runs through the heart of Washington. The Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool and the Capitol Dome are all iconic sites, familiar to people who have never walked the two miles from one end of the Mall to the other. Our cherry blossoms are a national draw to Washington. But the Mall as a whole has a rather more ambiguous identity–and that’s something that the Trust for the National Mall, founded in 2007, would like to change.
The Mall is a place where people gather for historic occasions, like President Obama’s 2008 inauguration, or major events like the March on Washington, the Million Man March, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart’s 2010 Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear and more recently, the Concert for Valor. It’s a terrific staging ground for multi-station events like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It’s a sound stage on which we can cast ourselves as walk-on extras in our significant national dramas, a screen on which we can project our dreams of mass movements and national unity.
Those are important roles. But they’re incongruous–and sometimes incompatible–with the day-to-day purpose of just being a park where people can come, hang out and have a good time.
If you leave hard stages up for weeks at a time, grass dies. The same broad vistas that can accommodate huge crowds or that are perfect for congressional softball games (the league has started rotating base positions from game to game so as not to risk wearing base paths into the turf) mean that much of the Mall doesn’t feel particularly intimate or personal. It’s hard to imagine having a special bench on the Mall that you return to week after week when there aren’t bends in the path or distinctive landscaping to make a part of the Mall feel singular.
The Trust’s current proposal to change that focuses on restoring and giving character to at least one section of the Mall, the area known as Constitution Gardens. The revitalization of Constitution Gardens has practical, tourist-oriented purposes. Deepening the pond there would fix an algae-filled eyesore. Moving the Lockkeeper’s House back from Constitution Avenue would protect it both from the routine vibrations caused by heavy traffic and the risk that the house might be hit by an errant vehicle. A pavilion would provide additional bathrooms and food to tourists schlepping from the World War II Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
But it’s also an attempt to give a part of the Mall its own character, to make Constitution Gardens a destination without a monument to act as a draw. Part of the design for the lake would thread a path through the water, creating a boundary for a shallow, controlled part of the lake where visitors could sail model boats in the summer and that would be frozen for ice skating in the winter. The pavilion would house not just a snack stand, but a destination restaurant (a tough thing to set up in Washington’s competitive restaurant scene) and a bookstore.
This is an ambitious plan. The Trust for the National Mall estimates the cost of revitalizing Constitution Gardens at $159.5 million, to be spent in two phases. And given the dire needs for infrastructure investment elsewhere on the Mall–most alarmingly, the Jefferson Memorial lost a big section of its ceiling last year–some, or even most of those costs will have to come from private sources rather than federal funding. And even if the plan is funded and executed, it remains to be seen if Constitution Gardens’ dual mission–to serve both tourists and Washingtonians–would end up appealing to both constituencies.
Constitution Gardens may be a heavy lift. But it’s the next stage in a conversation about preserving not just America’s secular temples, but the ground on which they stand.