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Giving the National Mall Some Curb Appeal
Landscape architect Teresa Durkin is determined to make “America’s Front Yard” a showpiece for the country. By Ariel Sabar
The Trust for the National Mall’s plans include an overhaul of the Washington Monument’s southern grounds, including a cafe, a visitors’ center, and an amphitheater with terraced lawns. Illustration courtesy of OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi.
Comments () | Published July 30, 2012

One of the first things I noticed when I met Teresa Durkin was the stench drifting from the amoeba-shaped lake behind us. “What is that we’re inhaling?” I asked.

“It’s muck and duck poo,” Durkin said, stepping around puddles of day-old rainwater on the buckling lakeside pavement.

Durkin and I weren’t on the back stretch of some second-rate regional zoo but at more or less the center of the National Mall. Constitution Gardens, a 50-acre tract just north of the Reflecting Pool and the World War II Memorial, is advertised on National Park Service websites as “a living legacy to the founding of the republic.” A shabby island reachable by a short footbridge is, allegedly, a monument to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

“My ego isn’t in defending a design,” says Durkin. “It’s in getting it built.” Photograph by Stephen Voss.

On the morning of our visit in early May, the dozen or so ducks plopping along the lake’s muddy banks outnumbered human visitors by about two to one.

“It’s not working,” Durkin said, shaking her head. “Either people don’t know how to get here or it looks like it’s under construction. From afar, it just looks like a place where ducks go. ”

Durkin, an award-winning, 58-year-old landscape architect, has become unusually well versed in the Mall’s design failings. The Trust for the National Mall, the DC nonprofit that is the Park Service’s official fundraising partner for Mall restoration projects, hired her in January as its first design professional after an extensive national search.

The Trust is much smaller than New York’s Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that’s credited with reviving Manhattan’s iconic park and now employs more than a dozen landscape designers and a large maintenance staff. But the Trust’s hiring of Durkin is a notable step in the Conservancy’s direction, a sign of its expansion from a group focused exclusively on fundraising to one with a growing voice on matters of design.

In some ways, it’s a big leap for Durkin, who previously toiled on decidedly unflashy projects such as stormwater-management plans for university campuses. But in other ways, it’s a logical next step for a woman whose ideas about the marriage of design and ecology have earned her larger and larger canvases.

The Trust’s aim is to restore “America’s front yard,” as the Mall has been called, from trampled mosh pit to American Eden. It’s a job Congress has been unwilling to fund. The National Park Service says the Mall needs $450 million in deferred maintenance and hundreds of millions more for design improvements. But the agency’s budget for the Mall and other DC parks, $32 million last year, has scarcely budged over the last decade, even as the number of monuments and memorials—Martin Luther King Jr., World War II—has grown.

“We’ve got to work with whatever Congress gives us,” says Carol Johnson, a National Park Service spokeswoman. “So to a certain extent, this”—the Mall’s rebirth—“is going to be on the Trust.”

The Trust was the brainchild of Georgina Sanger, who moved to DC in 2001 after the Manhattan start-up she worked for faltered during the dot-com bust.

“I’d lived in New York and seen the transition of Central Park into something really wonderful,” she says. The sunburned wasteland she walked through in her regular strolls along the Mall appalled her. With the help of well-connected family friends, she convinced John “Chip” Akridge III, a real-estate developer and now the Trust’s chairman, to underwrite a group that could raise money for improvements that Congress couldn’t—or wouldn’t—fund.

The Trust formed an official partnership with the Park Service and this past May unveiled the winners of a national competition to remake three of the Mall’s sorriest spaces: Union Square, the concrete expanse with the gargantuan reflecting pool at the western foot of the Capitol; the ill-conceived southern grounds of the Washington Monument; and Constitution Gardens.

With former First Lady Laura Bush as honorary chair, the Trust has pledged to raise $350 million. And fast. It wants to see at least one of the projects built by 2016, the centennial of the National Park Service. Durkin will serve as a liaison among the design teams, Congress, the Trust, and the Hydra of bureaucracies—most notably the Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the US Commission of Fine Arts—whose blessings are necessary for even slight alterations to the Mall.

She’ll vet drawings, help set up public meetings and technical workshops, and hold the high-powered design teams to deadlines, budgets, and a thicket of building regulations.

“I kind of stand between everyone,” she says. “A little fulcrum.”

In his 1791 plan for the capital, Pierre L’Enfant sketched a “Grand Avenue,” 400 feet wide and a mile long, that swept west from the “Congress House” to the Potomac River. The avenue, bordered by gardens and cultural institutions, was to meet a park leading north to the “President’s House.” The promenade would be an emblem of democracy, offering citizens of the new nation sweeping sightlines to its seats of power.

But President George Washington fired the temperamental L’Enfant in 1792, and the Frenchman’s vision languished.

The Mall we know today took shape at the start of the 20th century, when the Senate appointed such design luminaries as Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to a panel charged with realizing L’Enfant’s vision. The so-called McMillan Commission—named for its chairman, Senator James McMillan of Michigan—drafted a plan of rigid geometries, Beaux Arts buildings, and a defining central strip of grass lined with American elms.

What the commission didn’t foresee was how quickly the Mall would fall victim to its own popularity. The social movements of the 1960s turned it into a site of mass demonstrations. Concerts and festivals proliferated. More recently, legions of professionals settling in newly fashionable downtown areas have given the Mall a second life as a neighborhood park—twentysomething lawyers and journalists playing Ultimate Frisbee are as routine a sight these days as packs of eighth-grade tourists in matching T-shirts.

The result: The Mall is now the country’s most popular national park, drawing 25 million visitors a year, more than the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone combined. It is also, arguably, its least inviting. There are 100 toilets for those 25 million people and few places to eat, sit, or cool off in the shade. The century-old sea walls around the Tidal Basin have sunk so far that a walkway between the Jefferson and FDR memorials is underwater twice a day. On hot, crowded days, the gravel paths churn up small dust storms. Many of the central grass panels have been so trampled that they better resemble the Sahara than sod.

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  • rockcreekdc

    Constitution Gardens is my favorite biking spot on the Mall, and while I am glad something is going to be done, I am certainly against putting a resturant pavilion on the best view from the east...

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