National Mall and Memorial Parks , Washington DC


A view of the Mall looking toward the Washington Monument
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO

The Mall is located in the area encompassed by Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues, NW on the north, First Street on the east, Independence and Maryland Avenues on the south, and 14th Street on the west. The Mall is significant as the central axis of the District’s monumental core as designed by L’Enfant in 1791. The Mall was to be the foremost avenue of the city, the so-called “Grand Avenue.” It was to run west from the Capitol to a point directly south of the President’s House where its terminus would be crowned by an equestrian statue of George Washington. According to L’Enfant’s plan, the Mall was to be “four hundred feet in breadth, and about a mile in length, bordered by gardens, ending in a slope from the houses on each side.”

During the course of the 19th century, L’Enfant’s formal design for the Mall was largely forgotten. During the Civil War, the Mall grounds were used for military purposes, such as bivouacking and parading troops, slaughtering cattle and producing arms. In 1872, at 6th and B Streets, a 14 acre tract was given to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad for the construction of a depot. The railroad was also granted permission to lay tracks north to south across part of the Mall.

In 1851, President Millard Fillmore hired New York architect Andrew J. Downing to design a landscape plan for the Mall and the President’s Park. This landscape was to provide a wild, natural disposition of trees, shrubbery and open lawns, but it was never fully carried out.

In 1902 the McMillan Commission submitted their report to Congress. Their plan called for the restoration, development, and supplementation of the “Grand Avenue” ideal proposed by L’Enfant. The core of the Mall was to be a broad grass carpet, typical of those in Europe, 300′ in breath and running the entire length of the Mall grounds, bordered on each side by four rows of American elm trees. Public buildings were to border the whole, separated from the elms by narrow roadways. The railroad station was removed from the area in 1909.

The Mall is lined with a number of museums, contains two entrances for underground museums, and the Department of Agriculture.

In the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, the National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors to the public in 2004. The museum is the first national museum in the country dedicated exclusively to Native Americans. The curvilinear exterior of the building is clad in Kasota limestone and invokes natural rock formations that have been weathered by wind and water.  Surrounding the building is an eastern lowland landscape amid numerous water features. Douglas Cardinal, a member of the Blackfoot Tribe, designed the museum.

The National Air and Space Museum was completed in 1976 and designed by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum. This is a monumental glass and granite building which contains 200,000 square feet and houses the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk plane as well as the Apollo II space capsule. In 1988 a restaurant designed by the same firm was added to the east side of the building.

The Joseph Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden was designed in 1974 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. (Gordon Bundshaft, architect in charge) Lester Collins designed the sculpture garden in 1981. This round, concrete building, 231 feet in diameter houses one of the country’s greatest collections of contemporary sculpture and painting. The garden, which is sunken, provides a pleasant oasis for viewing more of the collection. The Arts and Industries Building, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1879-81 and designed by Cluss and Schulze, with Montgomery C. Meigs. This is a well-preserved example of 19th century “exposition” type of architecture. It was built to house the international exhibits left over from the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, and is a fanciful construction of polychrome brick.

The Botanic Garden on the Mall, 1859
The Historical Society of Washington, DC

The Smithsonian or “Castle” Building is the earliest building on the Mall and was designed by James Renwick and built in 1847-55 with alterations by Adolph Cluss after a fire in 1865. The Gothic Revival ‘Castle’ building was built of local Seneca sandstone. It was named for James Smithson, an Englishman who willed his entire fortune to the US, in order to found “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men.”

The Quadrangle Museums Project was designed in 1987 by Shepley, Bullfinch, Richardson and Abbott. The quadrangle opens south from the Castle building and contains two small buildings which are staging areas for two underground museums, the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art, and the National Museum of African Art, and another smaller kiosk-like building which provides the entrance for the S. Dillon Ripley Center. The buildings are placed in the Enid A. Haupt Garden which is centered around a diamond-shaped 19th century parterre.

The Freer Gallery of Art was designed in 1923 by Charles A. Platt and is a Neo-classical building housing Charles Lang Freer’s collection of the painting and sculpture of Asia and 20th century American artists, particularly James A. McNeill Whistler.

The Department of Agriculture was built in 1905 and designed by Rankin, Kellogg and Crane. This was the first building constructed on the Mall after the issuance of the McMillan Commission Report. It took the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt to keep the building from the middle of the Mall. The National Museum of American History was designed in 1964 by Steinman, Cain and White and is a nondescript building which houses a fascinating variety of exhibits. The National Museum of Natural History was designed in 1911 by Hornblower and Marshall and the wings were added in 1965 designed by Mills, Petticord and Mills. This neoclassical building is the first building on the north side of the Mall to comply with the strictures of the McMillan Commission. It houses a variety of exhibits including one which features the Hope Diamond, and has recently installed an IMAX theater.

The National Gallery of Art (West Building) was designed by John Russell Pope in 1941. This building, designed in the neoclassical idiom, relates well to both the Natural History Museum and the Federal Triangle. The National Gallery is not part of the Smithsonian Institution. It was founded by Andrew Mellon who bequeathed his impressive collection of art and sculpture as well as a generous endowment for its operation. The Sculpture Garden located to the west of the Museum and designed by the Olin Partnership opened in the spring of 1999. The National Gallery of Art (East Wing) was designed in 1978 by I.M. Pei and Partners. This elegant building is based on a triangular module. The marble used on the building is from the same quarry as the West Building.

Adjacent to the Mall along 14th Street, can be found the Auditors Main Building (Bureau of Printing and Engraving) designed in 1880 by James G. Hill. This dark red-brick building provides a strong contrast to the neoclassical buildings in the vicinity, especially the Department of Agriculture. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum designed in 1993 by Pei Cobb Freed and Partners is the American government’s memorial to the Holocaust. This strong design provides a stark contrast to its more complacent neighbors.

The National Mall is accessible to the public. check the National Park Service National Mall and Memorial Parks website for information on visiting the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, WWII Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A National Park Service Ranger Station is located on the Washington Monument grounds and is open from 8 am until midnight. For more information on ranger programs and National Mall activities call 202-426-6841. Visit the Parks & History Association’s virtual tour of the FDR Memorial, one of the newest additions to the National Mall. Metro stop: Smithsonian