Reviving America’s Front Yard

ASLA Recommendations to Restore the Mall's
Historical Integrity, 2006

Adapted from ASLA's response to the National Mall Plan regarding Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

The National Mall is this country’s most historic landscape and is identified throughout the world as the physical embodiment of the ideals and values of the United States. Because the National Mall is recognized as a cultural landscape of international importance, its fundamental character should be protected and preserved.  Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requires federal agencies to identify and review the effects of any federal activities on historic buildings, neighborhoods, culturally important landscapes, and other significant spaces. Thus, ASLA’s Section 106 comments and recommendations on the National Mall are restricted to reviewing the historically and culturally significant aspects of the Mall as an important landscape.

However, ASLA also recognizes that our National Mall serves as an important stage for political events, rallies and other civic functions and is also a critical recreational space for sports, concerts and festivals.  With that in mind, ASLA urges the National Park Service (NPS) to adopt a final National Mall Plan that values a balance between the social and political use of the National Mall and its preservation as a natural and cultural resource.

By many accounts, the planning of the National Mall began with Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan of the new federal city.  Later, landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing was hired by President Fillmore to establish the nation’s public park, which would become the National Mall.  However, it is the McMillan Plan of 1901 that took a broad, comprehensive approach to planning, designing and establishing the National Mall in its current form.  While the Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) Plan of the 1960s made certain changes and alterations to the National Mall, ASLA believes that it is the McMillan Plan that has most influenced the design and use of the Mall as we know it today. Thus, ASLA recommends that the McMillan Plan be the historical guide for purposes of Section 106 reviews and recommendations for the National Mall.  With this in mind, ASLA offers the following comments:

Union Square:

Union Square is an 11-acre space located near the U.S. Capitol and includes a memorial to Ulysses S. Grant and the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

ASLA believes that removing the Capitol Reflecting Pool, as recommended under 12.4-Alternative B, should not be considered because of its historical significance. While the reflecting pool was installed under the recent Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) Plan between the 1960s and the 1970s, the McMillan Plan always envisioned a body of water at this location. However, ASLA suggests that the reflecting pool could be redesigned to be more symmetrical, which would continue the McMillan Plan's vision for a continued axis. Further, designing two symmetrical pools would place more focus and emphasis on the Grant Memorial.

ASLA also believes that steps should be taken to ensure the preservation of the trees in Union Square, particularly the "Witness" trees, which are from the early 1900s when the Botanic Gardens were originally located in this space. Moreover, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., one of the landscape architects involved in the McMillan Plan, recommended incorporating the trees into the space.

The Mall:

The area known as "The Mall" runs from 3rd Street to 14th Street between Constitution and Independence Avenues. It was first planned and established under the L'Enfant Plan as the "Grand Boulevard" for the Capitol City. Later, the McMillan Plan would establish the Mall as an important landscape that would house the nation's monuments to our great leaders. Visually, the continuous green lawn and the surrounding American elm trees make this landscape the most recognizable.

ASLA recommends that chains or fences not be placed around the American elm trees that line the Mall because the McMillan Plan envisioned the space as a "broad consistent plane." The McMillan Commission stated that "creating a long plantation of trees would visually create a monumental space." In order to protect the trees and prevent compaction, ASLA recommends that the NPS work to develop structural soil suitable for open lawns that would minimize compaction, thereby avoiding the need for chains.

ASLA also recommends that NPS make an effort to bury the electrical maintenance boxes below grade level, which would also help to continue the "monumental space," envisioned under the McMillan Plan. Further, ASLA believes that replacing the gravel on the walkways with universally accessible surface materials would be suitable for the current use of the Mall. However, ASLA must point out that the continuous green lawn and the current color of the gravel are historically significant because, more than anything, they produce the linear feel of the Mall that was envisioned by the McMillan Plan.

Washington Monument:

The grounds of the Washington Monument begin at 14th Street through 17th Street and house the Washington Monument, a memorial to honor George Washington who led the country to independence and then became its first President. Completed in December 1884, the Washington Monument was envisioned to be the most important part of the Mall.

ASLA recommends that the visitor's service structure located on Madison Drive at 15th Street be relocated because placing a commercial structure on axis is not consistent with the historical viewshed of this important landscape. ASLA proposes that 15.5-Alternative B could be implemented to relocate the visitor center to a less obtrusive area that will not disrupt the landscape's viewshed. Further, ASLA suggests that including a bus drop off at this relocated visitor center would also help maintain the integrity of the landscape. The current bus drop off at Independence Avenue also disturbs the current viewshed of this iconic landscape.

Constitution Gardens:

Implemented as part of the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Plan, Constitution Gardens was dedicated in 1976 as part of the American Revolution Bicentennial tribute. Arnold Associates, headed by Henry F. Arnold, FASLA, served as landscape architecture consultants to SOM; George Dickie, ASLA, worked in-house at SOM and managed the landscape architecture Construction Documents. The original SOM Plan called for this area of the Mall to be used for programmed activities, restaurants, concerts, and other celebrations.

With the SOM Plan in mind, ASLA proposes that NPS implement 17.7-Alternative B because it would provide important and much-needed guest services including restaurants, gift shops, restrooms, and outdoor stage facilities for visitors to the Mall while still maintaining the historical integrity of the space.

Lincoln Memorial:

ASLA believes that the Lincoln Memorial, designed by Henry Bacon and dedicated in 1922, is an iconic landscape in its own right and every effort should be made to maintain the existing integrity of the landscape and its current subtle feel. Similarly, the Reflecting Pool is important to the historical and social image of the entire Lincoln Memorial landscape and changes to its structure could jeopardize its significance. Thus, ASLA suggests that 21.2-Alternative A be implemented, which would simply reconstruct the Reflecting Pool to allow for proper drainage and filtration.

Tidal Basin:

ASLA believes that filling in the north lobe of the Tidal Basin, as recommended by 26.3-Alternative C would violate the historical integrity of the Basin. 26.3-Alternative C calls for filling in the north lobe of the Tidal Basin to add more recreation space and perhaps to improve the hydrology of the Basin. However, the shape of the Basin was established by the Army Corps of Engineers in the late nineteenth century as evidenced in the model of existing conditions in the McMillan Commission Report. Although the Basin has been altered slightly with the construction of the Jefferson Memorial and the construction of the Kutz Bridge (which isolated the north lobe), the basic four-lobed shape of the Tidal Basin is one of the oldest aspects of the landscape beyond the Washington Monument. Filling it in was proposed in 1939, but it was not pursued. That unimplemented plan is not historically significant, and ASLA believes that filling in the north lobe would violate the historic integrity of the Basin.

However, ASLA does acknowledge that recreational activities around the Tidal Basin or in the Basin itself are consistent with the history of the Basin. According to the McMillan Commission Report, "The space south of the Monument is to be devoted to the people as a place of recreation - the Washington Common it might be called." The report goes on to state that a great stadium, ball grounds, tennis courts, sand piles, swings, boating, and swimming activities should occur around or in the Basin. While many of these recommendations were not built, it is clear that the area around the Tidal Basin and the Basin itself were historically intended to be used for recreational activities. Accordingly, ASLA does not believe that ball fields or sand volleyball courts would disrupt the historical significance of the Tidal Basin area.

Further, given the McMillan Commission's vision for making the area around the Tidal Basin and West Potomac Park a major recreation area, ASLA believes that the area is underutilized for organized picnicking and other forms of passive recreation. The waterfront could be better developed with conversational groupings of benches, picnic structures, restrooms, and other facilities to encourage a balance between the organized sports fields and other passive recreational activities.

West Potomac Park:

For historical purposes, ASLA believes that the firm shoreline of the Potomac should remain intact. 28.1-Alternative C calls for a 'natural edge' to the Potomac shoreline. The firm edge of the shoreline predates the McMillan Commission, and the Commission's design called for making that edge 'more' formal, not less so. While the desire for a more natural edge is understandable from an ecological standpoint, historically this shoreline, which is the "front" of the city, has been a firm edge since the time of construction. ASLA believes that it should remain formal and that NPS should determine other more appropriate locations for a more natural edge.

Pennsylvania Avenue:

Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Park is a planned, grand ceremonial boulevard that was conceived under the L'Enfant Plan and rehabilitated by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation in the late 20th century.

The additions of Freedom Plaza in 1980 and Pershing Park in 1981at the northwest end of Pennsylvania Avenue diminish Pennsylvania Avenue’s sense of grandness as envisioned under both the L’Enfant and McMillan Plan.  These added features may have been intended to be a modern equivalent of the historical system of reservations, but they do not work in the same way. Rather than focusing the Avenue, in the way that other squares and circles do, they merely disrupt it.  ASLA recommends that this area should be redesigned in the new master plan to strengthen the grandness of the Avenue as envisioned in the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans.

The Society looks forward to NPS implementing a comprehensive plan for the National Mall that will continue its place as an important landscape in our nation.

Green Since 1899

©2009 American Society of Landscape Architects