Kirk Savage on the National Mall

Author Kirk Savage talks about the history and aesthetic beauty of our nation’s monumental core

Kirk Savage
Kirk Savage was recently awarded the 2010 Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Art by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Melissa Farlow

Kirk Savage is the author of Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape. For it, he was awarded the 2010 Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Art by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He spoke with the magazine’s Megan Gambino.

How has America’s perception of the National Mall changed over the years?
In the 19th century, it was [just] a sequence of grounds attached to various buildings and institutions. The local residents saw it as a sort of Central Park for Washington, D.C. In the mid-20th century, its purpose changed radically. The Mall became the monumental core of the nation.

Americans were initially opposed to the idea of national monuments. Why?
After the Revolution, grandiose monuments were associated with the monarchy and the British aristocracy. There was also a lot of skepticism about what monuments could actually accomplish: Why should we spend $100,000 on a pile of stones? What is it really going to accomplish? Early Americans felt that real collective memory could only exist within the citizenry itself.

What was the impulse behind clearing the Mall of its trees and organizing it on an axis, from the Capitol to Lincoln Memorial, White House to the Jefferson Memorial?
It really began in earnest with the McMillan Plan in 1901. The idea to have a strong, symbolic core in the capital, something that really asserted the power and identity of the federal state was very important to the designers. They were going to impose order, and they were going to do it visually. Even though all those impulses and motivations did exist by the time the Mall was cleared in the 1930s, there was the added element of the automobile and the desire to use the Mall as a kind of road system for downtown Washington. That’s what actually made it a reality.

You’ve written that war monuments changed from statues of heroes on horseback to open structures, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. What explains this shift?
The obsession with great commanders and individual heroes was the prevalent mind-set in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries. But that later changed to focus on the common soldiers. That’s why, unlike the Civil War monuments, there are no grandiose statues of military commanders from World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War. We might call this the democratization of the public monument. It’s a shift from the great man idea of history to one that encompasses the ordinary man.

The whole idea of the monument as a space of experience is a shift that’s happened across the country. They now reach out and grab the viewer and create a psychological experience.

Can you describe an instance when you really felt the power of a particular National Mall monument?
I remember one day at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I came at an early hour so I could be there by myself. A man in a business suit walked up to the monument. He put his briefcase down, and he straightened up. He was looking at a particular spot—a particular name. And he saluted this spot on the monument, then picked up his briefcase and went off to work.

Do you have any grievances with the current state of the Mall?
I think it is very inhospitable. One of the downsides of clearing the Mall was that it created this huge swath of unshaded, basically barren landscape in the center of the city. So it’s that, and also the lack of amenities and good transportation around the Mall. I think some people are going back and looking more closely at the 19th century history of the Mall because they see it as a time when it functioned more as a user-friendly landscape, a place where people could go where there was shade and nice things to look at.

In your book, you propose that the Mall be a place for temporary monuments.
My thinking was that it could allow a much broader range of monuments and commemorative activities to take place than what is currently allowed in the monumental core. It could be much more experimental. It’s lower stakes than erecting something permanent. Part of the point is to generate discussion, so works that are more provocative wouldn’t be failures. In fact, they could be thought of as successes because they might lead to some interesting conversations.

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