As part of his vision for Washington, Pierre L’Enfant conceived of the National Mall as a bustling ceremonial avenue of embassies and other distinguished buildings. Today’s 2-mile, 700-acre stretch of land extending westward from the base of the Capitol to the Potomac River, just behind the Lincoln Memorial, fulfills that dream to some extent. Ten Smithsonian buildings, plus the National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden, and a stray government building (Department of Agriculture), stake out the Mall’s northern border along Constitution Avenue and southern border along Independence Avenue. More than 2,000 American elm trees shade the pebbled walkways paralleling Jefferson and Madison drives. In a single year, more than 25 million tourists and locals crisscross the Mall as they visit the Smithsonian museums; hustle to work; exercise; participate in whatever festival, event, or demonstration is taking place on the Mall that day; or simply go for a stroll—just as L’Enfant envisioned, perhaps.
What L’Enfant did not foresee was the toll that all of this activity might take on this piece of parkland. In recent years, visitors to the Mall often have been dismayed to see an expanse of brown rather than green grass, crumbling walkways, and an overall worn appearance. The National Park Service maintains the land but struggles to keep up with needed repairs and preservation work, mostly due to lack of sufficient funds, despite moneys from Congress and from the Trust for the National Mall (www.nationalmall.org), the Park Service’s official fundraising partner. A third organization called the National Coalition to Save Our Mall (www.savethemall.org), made up of professional and civic groups as well as assorted concerned artists, historians, and residents, advocates for a public voice in Mall enhancement decisions, and for more support from Congress. These organizations don’t necessarily agree on their visions for the Mall.
Note: Due to budget cuts you won't find rangers at every monument. Instead, they now rotate from monument to monument meaning that if you can't find one at the FDR monument to answer your questions, you may be able to if you stroll to the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument nearby.
- Elise Hartman Ford