News & Politics

How Big Can the Mall Get?

As more memorials and museums open, it's time to reconsider its boundaries.

Photo via / Cvandyke

Ask a tourist how to find the National Mall and you’ll be directed to that expanse of patchy lawn between the US Capitol and Lincoln Memorial. But as a new shrine begins to take shape, DC insiders are rethinking the Mall’s boundaries—and even its purpose.

On July 21, designs were due in the open competition for a national World War I memorial, to be built at one end of Pershing Park. The mostly cement patch at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the Willard Hotel, is a ten-minute walk from the northern edge of what most people think of as the Mall.

The choice of the park—pushed through Congress late last year by representatives Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri and Ted Poe of Texas and DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton—dashed the hopes of doughboy-advocacy groups that insisted space be found near the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam Veterans memorials. Their cause foundered against a moratorium, passed a decade ago by Congress, on adding to the Mall’s “core,” which it deemed a “substantially completed work of civic art.”

But some say limiting the Mall to its current shape is arbitrary. “Let’s quit saying the Mall is done,” says Judy Scott Feldman of the National Mall Coalition, a group working on a plan called the National Mall Third Century Initiative. “It can’t be finished any more than our history is finished.”

According to Feldman, Pershing Park is on the Mall. She points to the 1902 McMillan Plan, a Senate report on how to better what was then a series of naturalistic gardens. The document envisioned today’s broad lawn surrounded by low neoclassical museums. It also proposed extending the Mall’s boundaries to Maryland and Pennsylvania avenues. Pershing Park sits within that frame, says Feldman, “on the most ceremonial avenue in all of Washington.”

The coalition’s ideal Mall would be even larger, encompassing the Potomac River’s Theodore Roosevelt Island, the Kennedy Center, and Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, on the banks of the river, and making good on the McMillan Plan’s intention for a cruciform Mall stretching south to East Potomac Park.

This archipelago of parks and monuments would not only break open Americans’ mental image of the Mall; it would also spread revitalization (and tourists) through the city. Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which promotes the recognition of important outdoor spaces, notes that Pershing Park—the work of renowned modernist landscape architect Paul Friedberg—suffers from neglect. Done right, Birnbaum says, a WWI memorial could lift the park. And that’s only a start: “It could be a harbinger of other spaces becoming memorials—Freedom Plaza, and John Marshall Park after that.”

Not everyone agrees that the Mall needs to jump its bounds. Justin Shubow of the National Civic Art Society believes more structures could be squeezed in: “There’s plenty of room for memorials so long as they’re done modestly.”

A modest memorial may be a contradiction. But besides modesty, Shubow counsels patience. “The moratorium is unlikely to hold,” he says. “I don’t think Congress can restrain itself.”

This article appears in our August 2015 issue of Washingtonian.