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Rogers Marvel Selected for President’s Park South

By Shannon Leahy

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) announced on July 7 that Rogers Marvel Architects of New York City was selected to redesign President’s Park South. The architecture firm beat out four landscape architecture firms in a competition “to beautify the security components and improve the visitor experience” at the park. The other competing firms included Hood Design Studio, Oakland, California; Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), Brooklyn, New York; Reed Hilderbrand Associates; Watertown, Massachusetts; and Sasaki Associates, Watertown, Massachusetts. 

NCPC selected the five finalists from an open submission process launched in early March and invited them to present their proposals at a public showcase hosted on June 28 in Washington, D.C.

President’s Park South presents a number of design constraints, and the proposals to reimagine it were appropriately subtle. The park, comprising 52 acres of national park land located between the White House grounds and the National Mall, is one of the most highly visited locations in the nation’s capital. It includes Sherman Park, the First Division Monument, and the Ellipse and its side panels, and houses several important statues, memorials, and structures. Several notable figures including landscape architects Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. have influenced the site.

The competition aimed to respect historical precedents while improving critical security components for the White House and providing an engaging public space. Guidelines specifically required measures to minimize the conflict between visitors and authorized vehicles entering the White House grounds on the south side that would not preclude reintroducing vehicular traffic to E Street NW. E Street has been closed to unauthorized vehicular traffic for the past decade, and security kiosks guard the entrances from 15th and 17th streets.

All five proposals offered variations on similar themes to improve the connection between the Ellipse and the White House grounds and expand pedestrian access on E Street. Each provided relatively economic and flexible options for upgrading security components and integrating them into the landscape to increase visitor accessibility. The proposals also reflected modern reinterpretations of the site’s historic precedents that lend to various new path configurations and planting schemes with an emphasis on stormwater management.

Presidents Park 1

Rogers Marvel’s winning proposal, E Street for Public Life, with Quennell Rothschild and Partners as landscape architects on the team, attempted to expand and improve upon pedestrian access on E Street by relocating security elements and planting new groves in the northern side panels of the Ellipse. In perhaps the most visible measure to enhance security, the plan proposed to elevate the entire perimeter of the Ellipse with an earth-backed wall that provided anti-ram vehicle interdiction and doubled as a bench for visitors. The continuous wall featured specific entry points that clarified public access areas and could remain open or closed depending on the level of security required. 

Hood Design Studio’s proposal, Democracy’s Front Porch, attempted to resolve “the geometry of the two opposing curved forms of the Ellipse and White House Garden” by overlapping the two spaces. A three-foot-high, 800-foot-long ha-ha wall formed an edge between the northern part of the Ellipse and E Street. It became a bench at the top of the Ellipse in a gathering space for “prospect and refuge” called the “front porch.” Stone and glass intended to be emblematic materials of this time period were used exclusively throughout the built elements to further unify the space. 

MVVA’s President’s Park South focused on enhancing security features but minimizing their effect on public space so that “a landscape that might suggest fear becomes a landscape of pleasure.” The plan added to the existing security walls and bollards but transformed these features into integral and enjoyable park features embedded in extensive new plantings. A continuous planted wall barrier defined the south side of E Street. New plantings of trees and shrubs throughout the side panels of the Ellipse created a “garden-scale intimacy” replete with benches and additional circuitous walkways. 

Reed Hilderbrand’s President’s Park South Promenade suggested transforming E Street into a modern-day promenade forming a “connective tissue” where the South Lawn overlaps with the Ellipse. Relocating the adjacent surface parking to a proposed facility under the Ellipse provided additional space for a unified park landscape of diverse and robust plantings. The planting scheme privileged the protection and amplification of the existing American elms encircling the Ellipse’s main path and introduced a new diversified canopy to reconnect the elms with the existing canopy on the South Lawn. 

Sasaki’s Reconnect + Place proposed a new civic plaza and gathering space on E Street at the intersection of the South Lawn and the Ellipse. A 150-foot-long granite bench along the south edge of the plaza, elevated three feet from the Ellipse, provided vehicular security south of the White House and seating for visitors. The granite plaza was flanked by triangular shaped spaces to the east and west with large tree groves featuring willow oaks. The west triangle also featured a kiosk for food and beverages and movable tables and chairs. 

The proposals were open to public comment before a selection committee made the final decision. In a press release announcing the winner, NCPC stated, “Rogers Marvel’s design stood out, offering the most dramatic approach for integrating security and public space design.” The architecture firm and its team will work with the National Park Service and the U.S. Secret Service to develop additional alternatives for President’s Park South. These alternatives may include elements from the four other finalists’ schemes. All five finalists agreed to allow for the incorporation of their design into the final proposal regardless of whether they were selected to lead the project. The next round of alternatives will include options from the Environmental Impact Statement and undergo a federal, local, and public review.

Shannon Leahy, who is interning with ASLA this summer, is a candidate for a Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.  

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