The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991 (Second Edition)

The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991

by Richard Longstreth (Author), Prof. Richard Longstreth (Editor)

  • Series: Studies in the History of Art Series
  • Hardcover: 328 pages
  • Publisher: NGW-Stud Hist Art; 2 Sub edition (January 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300095376
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300095371




4ème de couverture.

As the most important public space in the United States, the Mall in Washington, DC, has been a vital emblem of national spirit and ideals ever since Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant first envisioned it over 200 years ago. Although the Mall has undergone numerous changes since its conception, it has retained centrality within the life of the capital and has emerged as an essential symbol of American national identity and an influential model of city planning worldwide. Featuring 14 essays by prominent historians, architects, and leaders of some of Washington, DC’s most important institutions, this volume explores the Mall’s origins and growth, as well as the shifting political forces and cultural values that have shaped it. Over 140 illustrations help to tell the story of the site, including vintage maps, prints and drawings, in addition to numerous contemporary documentary and historical photographs. This edition features a new introduction discussing developments on the Mall since the first edition was published in 1991.


It has been exactly two hundred years since Pierre Charles L’Enfant conceived his extraordinary scheme for the capital city of the United States, which has as its focus a grand ceremonial space. Over the pas two centuries the Mall, so designated from its early days, has undergone numerous changes in design and use, all the while retaining its centrality within the life of the city and emerging, in the process, as a vital symbol of national identity. – HENRY A. MILLON, Preface to the first edition

George Wnhington University
Change and Continuity on the Mall,

Everyone knows the Mall, that great core of the federal precinct envisioned in the 1791 plan for Washington, D.C., by Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant and realized in varying, sometimes divergent, forms during the two hundred years since that plan was prepared. Probably no other civic space in the country is used by so many segments of society for so many different purposes. Tourists come in droves, but area residents also frequent the Mall, and many use it as a municipal park. Thousands of people work on the Mall or pass through it in the course of their daily business. The Mall long has been heralded as an example of civic design, familiar to historians of architecture and urban development, architects, landscape architects, planners, and others involved with shaping the built environment. Accounts of the Mall’s evolution and salient features abound. Yet much remains to be learned about the origins, development, and present configuration of this place. Increased understanding is especially important because the Mall is not a static thing but continues to change and be subject to many proposed changes, ranging from sizable museum buildings to minor commemorative sculpture. What the Mall is and what it should become have long stirred controversy. The intent of both the symposium held at the National Gallery of Art in October I 987 and of this volume is to focus on specific aspects of the Mall’s complex history from inception to recent past, building on the distinguished, pioneering research of such figures as John Reps and Frederick Gutheim.

The symposium included scholarly papers addressing the Mall’s development through the 1960s as well as papers by architects and others who have figured importantly in the work itself during recent decades. For the historical portion, the focus was on the Mall as a precinct, rather than on individual buildings or monuments. The latter subiects constitute a corpus sufficiently rich to justify a program far more ambitious than the one undertaken on this occasion.

L’Enfant conceived his plan in terms of a matrix for the development of a great city by international standards. Washington may or may not have achieved that rank, but both the L’Enfant plan (pls. iv, v) and the realized form of its major components, such as the Mall, deserve consideration among the significant works of city planning worldwide. Norma Evenson thematically compares a number of these places, from Paris to Brasilia, New Delhi to Canberra, analyzing not only salient physical characteristics, but how the monumental precinct relates to the larger city.

L’Enfant’s vision continues to be invoked as the essence of Washington and as a guide for current policy and practice. Indeed the name of L’Enfant is probably cited more often in these contexts than are those of all the others who may have had greater impact on the city as it now exists. The continued, and perhaps even mounting, interest in the French engineer stems partly from the many remarkable aspects of his plan, but also from the fact that so little is known for certain about his design. Some recent interpretations have only heightened the controversy over its precise nature and what L’Enfant conceived as the city in its three-dimensional form. A fresh examination of the plan’s features, sources, and iconographic content is offered here in Pamela Scott’s paper. Scott’s work stands as a major contribution on which future study will depend. Yet the meager extent of surviving evidence promises further debate. Like Pliny’s account of his villas, L’Enfant’s plan may entice one generation after another to formulate new views without reaching full agreement.

Scott also adds to our understanding of how L’Enfant’s plan for the Mall quickly became modified by a succession of architects, most notable among them, Robert Mills. Mills’ designs for the area (pls. xxiv-xxvi) and nearby federal properties were the product of a single conception, which was unusually eclectic at the time in proposing that references to several past cultures represented the inheritance of the New World. Indeed, the United States may have been the only country where one could then plausibly advance the idea that this collective inheritance stood as a symbol of the nation itself.

Therese O’Malley likewise breaks new ground in her discussion of Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1851 plan (pl. xxviii and the development of the Mall as a botanical garden. Downing was no less audacious in his proposal of a naturalistic landscape providing an emblem of the national spirit in the center of the federal city than Mills and L’Enfant had been in their schemes. The fact that Downing’s plan at least began to be executed adds to its significance as a precedent. The Mall hence became a proving ground, not only for ideas but for actual work, which would subsequently influence a chain of events whereby the large municipal park would emerge as an essential component of the urban landscape in the United States.

Those portions of Downing’s plan and most of the other projects realized on the Mall during the nineteenth century were eradicated in the Senate Park Commission, or McMillan, Plan of 1901-1902. Thomas Hines draws from his past work on Daniel Bumham and the City Beautiful movement to reaffirm the importance of this scheme for Washington and for the country as a whole. Ion Peterson documents how the new design also provided a catalyst for the transformation of the very idea of what a comprehensive plan was and how the scheme set a new standard that at once influenced the nascent practice of city planning across the nation. Again, a scheme conceived as a national symbol emerged as an agenda for undertakings that would affect the development of communities from coast to coast.

The McMillan Plan has been studied at greater length than have other phases of the Mall’s long history; nevertheless, some basic points concerning this scheme beg further inquiry. How, for example, does the comprehensiveness of the McMillan Plan compare to work done in European cities during the second half of the nineteenth century? The Senate Park Commission closely examined the physical evidence of European centers, but did its members learn, too, from the remarkable public works bureaucracy created by Baron Georges Haussmann in Paris. or from the subsequent endeavors of his German counterparts? Hines emphasizes the City Beautiful as an American phenomenon; yet, as it drew primarily from European sources, did it in turn affect work, or at least thinking, abroad? The Senate Park Commission found itself in a highly unusual role: a few designers determining a multifaceted plan for an entire metropolitan region. Daniel Burnham, especially, continued to work in this vein for the remainder of his career. The concept of an architect as the shaper of a city was by no means new; however, Bumham carried the concept to a degree that had little precedent in urban history. To what extent did his example, introduced in Washington and developed further in cities such as San Francisco and Chicago, influence other architects who subscribed to the City Beautiful’s tenets, or modernists such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Richard Neutra, for whom designing cities became a fundamental expression of their respective philosophies? Whatever the findings, there is no doubt that the McMillan Plan deserves exploration within a broad, international context.

Implementing the grand design presented in 1902 was, of course, a long, arduous task. Well over half a century passed before the Mall approached the state envisioned in the Mc-Millan Plan. Among the plan’s designers, Charles McKim became a key figure in the ensuing struggle over adhering to its matrix. Without his continued involvement and the tireless behind-the-scenes work of Washington architect Glenn Brown, it is unlikely that the plan ever would have become more than a vision on paper. The years prior to World War 1 were crucial for resolving the placement of some major components such as the Lincoln Memorial, but it was not until later decades that execution of the overall plan commenced in earnest. David Streatfield’s essay documents how Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr, was instrumental not only in developing the original design, but in guiding its execution during the interwar years – a process that entailed numerous changes due to fiscal realities and shifts in taste.

The younger Olmsted, Streatfield emphasizes, has been a sorely neglected figure despite his major contribution to twentieth-century design and planning in the United States. Among the facets of his Washington work that deserve reexamination is his impact on the McMillan Plan itself. McMillan generally is given credit for the Mall, but his previous planning work was on a much smaller scale, and neither he nor Burnham had much experience with landscape design. As Olmsted orchestrated the commission’s European tour, so he may have been at least an essential adviser in redirecting McI(im’s superb compositional skills to the demands of working on so ambitious a scheme that employed plan materials as primary design components.

Richard Guy Wilson also examines the implementation process. Rather than concentrating on a single figure, he analyzes events from the standpoint of the different, and often conflicting, groups involved with the federal precinct, emphasizing how vigorous and controversial that process generally has been. Part of the problem, he reminds us, is the divergence of views concerning what constitutes appropriate national symbols. Another factor is that Americans never have been prone to sustaining a single aesthetic over a long period and adhering to the strict controls necessary to achieve a planning objective. In retrospect, it less remarkable that implementation of the McMillan Plan took so long than that the process was sustained.

The impact of the Mall on architectural and planning practice is explored by Robert A.M. Stern, who has contributed to our knowledge of the past as well as to current tendencies in design. Stern reviews a spectrum of projects in the United States dating from the 1900s to the 19805, emphasizing that the lessons learned, especially since World War II, have not always been positive ones. Nevertheless, he concludes that the Mall may be as potent a source of inspiration today as it was during the early twentieth century.

The fact that work on the Mall remains very much an ongoing phenomenon is underscored in a paper by I. Caner Brown, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts. Since its founding in 1910, the commission has probably been the most important single force in the Mall’s development. Brown delineates what he considers the commission’s most significant achievements there during his twenty-year tenure. He also offers, in his capacity as director of the National Gallery of Art, an account of major issues that affected the East Building’s design.

Gyo Obata and lean Paul Carlhian introduce their concerns as architects in creating two major additions to the Smithsonian Institution oomplex, which collectively defines much of the Mall’s architectural character. Dan Kiley has long been involved in landscape designs for the Mall; but rather than focusing on past endeavors, he has chosen to address concerns for future change.

What will happen to the Mall in years hence is a matter of great interest on many fronts. Perhaps for the first time, pronounced departures from the McMillan Plan that amount to redesigning the Mall are being advanced on a theoretical level by Kiley and others, most notably Leon Krier. The Mall now has reached the state where it is almost fully developed; a few « unfinished » parcels remain, yet they are minor compared to the unfinished work of fifty years ago (pls CXVII, CXVIII). Thus concern in many quarters has shifted from problems of development to those of preservation. Such a shift inevitably rekindles old controversies and generates new ones; to assess the implications, it is essential to examine what the Mall is and what it represents in its current state.

While the history of design in the United States is marked far more by change than by continuity, the Mall as it now exists has transcended change. l.’Enfant’s plan was influenced by the classical tradition, but also by picturesque sensibilities in late eighteenth-century France. Not long thereafter, schemes more pronounced in their informality began to be prepared for the Mall, and picturesqueness became the dominant thrust of work executed during most of the nineteenth century.

Then a new academic classicism gained the upper hand under the aegis of the Senate Park Commission. By the 1920s, many components of that commission’s plan were being realized in a simpler, more relaxed vein; and in work done since the 19605, a considerably greater range of approaches is evident. Nevertheless, the cumulative result minimizes the differences. Today, one’s perception of the Mall, in both its tangible and associative dimensions, is of continuity. Not fully aware of the Mall’s complex history, many people refer to the area more as a product of l’Enfant than of his numerous successors, in part because of the desire to believe that all this work has been built on a vision established at the time of the city’s founding. And, in contrast to most nineteenth-century proposals for the Mall, the drive to reestablish a continuum, invoking the spirit of the l’Enfant plan as a guide, has shaped much of the Mall’s design since 1900.

As a result of the longstanding pursuit of consistent obiectives in this century, the Mall’s physical character has emerged as sufficiently strong and lucid to embrace deviations. From the Smithsonian Institution Building to the National Gallery’s East Building, the area includes over a century’s worth of remarkable designs embodying ideas quite different from, yet not necessarily incompatible with, those of L’Enfant and his twentieth-century successors. The Mall can even hold its own against the few architectural banalities that have been inflicted on it; however, any precinct can only tolerate so much intrusion before the underlying spirit is compromised beyond retrieval, leaving little more than an assemblage of varied opinions about design cast in three-dimensional form.

Much of the Mall’s visual strength lies in its scale. From the Capitol to Fourteenth Street, the broad, linear space creates a sense of expansiveness commensurate with the bold visions that shaped it, a space that may be said to be emblematic of the vast reaches of the country itself (pl. CXIX). The utter simplicity of the pans is an essential contributor to this effect; more detailed treatments might at once distract the eye and erode the coherence. The Mall then would become more a collection of things and less a great open forum that allows one to imagine and do so much within its confines.

The best architecture on and adjacent to the Mall acts in concert with its scale and spatial character. From a distance and viewed diagonally, most of the buildings stand as little more than an unobtrusive backdrop (pls. CXX,CXXI). Were the treatment uniform, with scant variation in facades, the effect would be deadening. Many of these works are monuments in their own right, but the pivotal points of focus they provide become apparent primarily at close range. As a result, the sequence appears constantly to change, with moments of emphasis and stretches of neutrality—a varied rhythm that prevents the semblance of mere size.

Then around the Washington Monument, the space opens further to become an enormous field, a plain on which almost nothing is allowed to interfere except the obelisk itself (pl. CXXII). Here definition is replaced by implied limitless expansion. The grassy knoll recedes toward trees that seem distant and unimportant; the shaft meets the ground unceremoniously, without a base. But it is not so much the juncture that matters as the unimpeded vertical thrust, soaring without a visual terminus save the sky.





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