As the Nation’s Front Lawn, the National Mall is Getting a Refresh

The Trust for the National Mall hopes to fund one of two projects that could bring an amphitheater, restaurant or ice skating rink to the Mall

A redesign of Constitution Gardens could transform the area into a winter wonderland. Illustration by Rogers Marvel Architects + Peter Walker and Partners for Constitution Gardens. (Courtesy the Trust for the National Mall)

Half of all Americans will eventually make the trip to the National Mall to take in the calm of the Reflecting Pool, the majesty of the Washington Monument and the amenities of all the great museums surrounding it. But Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall, wants to make that visit a little better.

Billed as a fundraising arm to help support the efforts of the National Park Service, her organization seeks to make the Mall the “best park in the world.”

Sometimes, this means mundane but massive improvement projects that help repair the neglected two-mile stretch of land. Partnering with the Parks Service, the Trust recently launched the Turf Project to help grass grow once again on the well-trodden surfaces of the Mall.

National Parks Service
National Parks Service projects are highlighted in red. The Trust often partners up with the NPS to complete improvements. (Courtesy the National Parks Service)

In a 2011 USA Today article, Cunningham listed the many areas of disrepair across what is sometimes referred to as the “Nation’s front lawn.” The front of the Jefferson Memorial Plaza was sinking, the sidewalks along the Tidal Basin was cracking and the Reflecting Pool was leaking 50 million gallons annually. The Parks Service recently finished work on the pool to prevent leaking and improve circulation—though last week an abundance of algae prompted officials to drain and clean it.

But there are more glamorous projects as well. In anticipation of the Parks Service’s 150th anniversary in 2016, the Trust is hard at work on a redesign project. The group has held design competitions for both Constitution Gardens and the Washington Monument Grounds. Cunningham says the plans had to honor the historic integrity of the sites as well as present a sustainable model.

Tourists will be delighted to hear the winning plans—32 teams entered—also include more bathrooms and, at Constitution Gardens, space for a restaurant. Citing Central Park’s Boat House as inspiration, Cunningham says the winning design for the gardens features a shallow basin that could serve a skating rink in the winter.

visitors could relax
In the summer, visitors could relax and even grab a bite to eat. Illustration by Rogers Marvel Architects + Peter Walker and Partners for Constitution Gardens. (Courtesy the Trust for the National Mall)

The board still has to decide which of the two, the gardens or the monument grounds, will go forward. Yet, Cunningham hopes construction will be completed in time for the anniversary. “We’d like to present a gift to the nation at that time,” says Cunningham.

Washington Monument Grounds
Meanwhile, plans for the Washington Monument Grounds include an amphitheater, cafe and exhibition space. Illustration by OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi for Sylvan Theater. (Courtesy the Trust for the National Mall)

Cunningham says she can’t play favorites and thinks both have assets. “Both of the designs really respect the historic integrity of the space,” she says. “They don’t challenge the monuments and the memorials, which are really the most breathtaking icons on the National Mall. Both of them are very landscape-driven from a solutions standpoint so you’re using the landscape in a way that better supports the amenities that you really need in a way that a lot of it is really hidden.”

OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi for Sylvan Theater
An amphitheater would serve as a gathering place in the shadow of the Monument. Illustration by OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi for Sylvan Theater. (Courtesy the Trust for the National Mall)

Meant to give visitors a place to play and enjoy the splendor of the Mall, the designs at both locations offer individual experiences. Cunningham says she thinks that’s what the Mall offers; an individual chance to experience and reflect on the country’s past and present.

“There’s a reason why people make the pilgrimage to the capital. I think it’s to better understand their own country.”

In an effort to help visitors better understand their country, the Trust is also training volunteer docents to roam the Mall and give educational tours of the land’s history. If you have a minimum of two days per month available, sign up here for more information.

About Leah Binkovitz
Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is a Stone & Holt Weeks Fellow at Washington Post and NPR. Previously, she was a contributing writer and editorial intern for the At the Smithsonian section of Smithsonian magazine.

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