Mall of Americans

Posted November 7th, 2008 at 6:02 pm (UTC-4)

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to work in an ordinary office or veterinarian’s clinic or wine shop next door to some historic landmark, say the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

What would it be like to walk to work each day past the Taj Mahal, or live in a little cottage half a block from the Louvre? Would these iconic attractions quickly fade into the background and seem no more remarkable than a bus shelter or branch bank?

Surely not, you say. Scurrying along the Neva in St. Petersburg, day in and day out, one could never ignore the Winter Palace.

Well, don’t be so sure.

At the end of every day that I am at work in Washington, I pack up my books and papers and empty lunch container and walk out of VOA headquarters, heading north. I trudge – or stride jauntily if it has been a good day – straight ahead a kilometer or so to the Judiciary Square Metro subway station, where I can catch a Red Line train for the short hop to my hometown across the Maryland state line.

Break in the Monotony
National Mall
The National Mall extends from the U.S. Capitol past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. There are reflecting pools at each end

En route, I cross the wide expanse of the National Mall. Mall, as in public open space, not stores and escalators and crowded parking lots. Often there’s a soccer or kickball game in motion, or people throwing Frisbees to their dogs. Sometimes a big tent or two or 20 has appeared on the grass, signaling some sort of festival. Or roustabouts are assembling risers and a stage for a concert. Knots of tourists amble about, some turning their maps this way and that to get their bearings.

“Need directions?” I always ask, as if it weren’t obvious. Out of stubborn pride but with thanks, they often reply in the negative and go back to running their fingers along their maps.

March on Washington
Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his memorable “I have a dream” speech on the Mall at the conclusion of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Quite often, large hunks of the Mall are roped off and inaccessible, either to give the trampled grass a fighting chance at regeneration or to get the grounds ready for a zillion-person march or a fireworks display or a presidential inauguration. Or just for a “movie under the stars” in the summertime.

In cranky, self-centered moments, I sometimes think they throw up rope lines or snow fences just to drive me into that deep puddle where the storm drain has backed up, or to spoil the view.

One, Two, Three . . . SMILE!

Ah, that view! Which people from Kansas and Korea and Kuala Lumpur alike spend good money, and lots of it, to come see. Our monuments don’t lean, thankfully, but visitors can’t help taking each other’s pictures in front of them.

Washington Monument
Construction of the Washington monument began in 1846 but halted in 1854 because of a lack of funds. The obelisk stood as a 46-meter-high stump for 25 years until work resumed

I get a special kick out those who fire off their flash attachments when they’re shooting the United States Capitol, half a kilometer away, on a cloudy day or in the dead of night, as if this puny candlepower would emblazon more than the parking meter directly in front of them. And it amuses me to watch a determined shutterbug trying to squeeze ten assorted friends and the impossibly tall (169-meter) Washington Monument obelisk, or “National Pencil,” as my kids preferred to call it, into the frame of a palm-sized disposable camera.

On each little sally to the Metro, I practically brush against the striking, curvilinear sandstone of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and I could reach out and touch the funky sculpture beside the modern-art wing of the National Gallery of Art, or take a healthy 3.2-kilometer detour to the far end of the Mall to contemplate the impressive Lincoln Memorial.

Tuned in but Dropped Out

Like the Parisian cottage owner near the Louvre, I suspect, I don’t pay much attention to these places any more. My thoughts drift elsewhere, my headset is tuned to news or sports, and my gaze is at the display of the number of seconds remaining on the street-crossing signs rather than familiar monuments and museums.

Korean War Veterans Memorial
Snow at the Korean War Veterans Memorial is especially dramatic because it harks back to the awful conditions faced by soldiers in the Korean conflict of the early 1950s

Not so, though, I must admit, at certain dusks when the sunset turns the Capitol Building a shimmering orangy-pink, or on rainy days when low-slung clouds kiss the Washington Monument, or snow piles high on the patrol of stainless-steel soldiers at the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Then, it’s impossible to ignore the beauty and significance of the treasure that I like to call the Mall of Americans. Indeed, I’ve never been to another place where “going to the Mall” didn’t mean a trip to a shopping arcade.

The National Mall is a historic, evolving, and quite controversial piece of real estate. As the Examiner newspaper noted in 2006, “Washington has more than 400 municipal and national parks covering thousands of acres across all corners of the city. But for the estimated 26 million tourists who will converge on the District this summer, the National Mall is the only one most of them will ever see.”

C’est Magnifique
Pierre L'Enfant
Pierre L’Enfant was a talented but temperamental fellow. His layout of Washington was brilliant, but someone else had to finish the job after George Washington fired him

As plans for a new national capital took shape in the 1790s, President George Washington and his handpicked city planner, artist and engineer Pierre-Charles L’Enfant – who had served under a fellow Frenchman, Major General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette on the American side in the revolution against Britain – tramped the banks of the Potomac River together.

L’Enfant’s baroque Plan of the City in 1791 laid out a goosefoot arrangement of wide, Parisian-style radials outward from the “Congress House,” or U.S. Capitol. And on a line due west, he drew a “vast esplanade,” along which he envisioned embassies, grand homes, and, as he wrote Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, “all such sort of places as may be attractive to the learned and afford diversion to the idle.”

He called this expanse his “place of resort.” Not last resort, I hasten to point out, but resort, meaning a useful and enjoyable pleasure ground rather than just a panoply of embassies or cultural institutions.

L'Enfant's Plan
Click to enlarge this image of L’Enfant’s plan for Washington. The dark lines toward the center are canals, including an ill-fated one along the north edge of the National Mall

Running along the northern edge of the Mall, L’Enfant drew a canal extending from a Capitol Hill trickle called Tiber Creek. Future presidents would ride grand barges up this canal to their inaugurations, he felt certain. His patron, Washington, would get an equestrian statue. (Instead, Washington’s tribute would turn out to be that 169-meter-tall pencil.)

Not Paradise By a Long Shot

L’Enfant’s resort and ceremonial corridor would be a long time coming. Victorian landscapers filled the space with gardens and copses. Sheep and cows grazed behind the first Agriculture Department building, and the U.S. cavalry kept horses there as well.

Industrial neighborhoods that included residential shacks and stables, belching smokestacks and a huge gas-storage tank, the city’s most opulent brothel, and a muddy lane called “Louse Alley” – as in the bloodsucking insect – rose just across the Capitol’s reflecting pool. There was no need to rue the poor view of monuments, because there was none at all.

In 1873, Congress granted a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad a right-of-way across the Mall to its terminal on Pennsylvania Avenue. Soon the middle of the Mall was a dingy rat’s nest of brambles, coal piles, and railroad spurs. L’Enfant’s canal had deteriorated into a pestilent sewer. All that passed for pastoral was, as historian Jon A. Peterson describes it, “a chain of individual public parks, each associated with a different Victorian building, most of them built of red brick.” There was no government building or memorial or tourist attraction – just a fetid, oozing Potomac River tidal flat – beyond the Washington Monument obelisk.

Big-Time Beautification

In short, L’Enfant’s plan had been, to borrow a word from the report of a new set of planners at the turn of the 20th Century, “perverted” by greed and haphazard development.

Chicago World Expo
The gleaming white buildings at the 1893 Chicago world expo, which were almost all temporary, infatuated a nation full of drab and dingy industrial cities

Those same, dreamy planners had returned inspired from the “Great White City,” modeled after ancient Greece and Rome, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago – so-called because it marked, a year late, the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first journey to the New World. The success of this dazzling fair unleashed “City Beautiful” fervor to turn sooty old cities into classical showplaces. In Washington, its enthusiasts included New York Beaux-Arts architect Charles McKim; landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.; and Daniel Burnham, the dynamo who had orchestrated the Chicago expo. “Make no small plans,” Burnham believed, and he and the others set about to tidy up the tangled National Mall.

Away went the railroad tracks and slag piles, briar patches and gas-lit carriage paths. Out, too, went thousands of trees as the planners restored L’Enfant’s original breathing space and vistas. Engineers filled in the smelly canal and flats leading from the great obelisk to the Potomac River, where a Memorial Bridge would one day connect the new Lincoln Memorial with Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Terrific Treasure Troves
Castle Building
The first of many Smithsonian Institution museum buildings on or along the Mall was the “Castle,” which has served as both Smithsonian headquarters and exhibit space

The National Mall became open pleasure grounds at last, bounded, over time, by a parade of free Smithsonian Institution museums – Natural History, American History, African Art and more. They became powerful tourist magnets.

The Air and Space Museum, whose 23 galleries display U.S. spacecraft, the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flyer, and the plane in which Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh first traversed the Atlantic solo in 1927, is now, according to Smithsonian officials, the most-visited museum in the world.

The Lincoln Memorial, built on that landfill hard by the Potomac, was designed

Lincoln Memorial
The Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, is said to have been architect Henry Bacon’s inspiration for the Lincoln Memorial

by architect Henry Bacon and dedicated in 1922. Daniel Chester French’s 6-meter-high statue of a seated Lincoln looking out over the Reflecting Pool toward the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol Building, is made of 28 interlocking blocks of Georgia marble. The memorial’s 36 Doric columns represent the states of the union at the time of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. And above the building’s frieze are the chiseled names and entry dates of the 48 states in the Union when the memorial was completed. Late-coming Alaska and Hawaii get a mention in an inscription on the memorial’s terrace.

Everything was going smoothly, vista-wise, until two world wars came along, and the War Department, starved for space for a suddenly burgeoning cadre of clerks, erected row after row of temporary buildings, or “tempos,” in the handiest open space available. This was, of course, the National Mall. The Washington Post called tempos “examples of the barracks school of architecture.” Built to last 10 years at most, they proved surprisingly sturdy. Most were low, two-story, wooden, un-airconditioned creations that just about everybody considered an eyesore, a fire hazard, and sitting ducks if there were ever an air attack.

There weren’t just a few wartime “tempo” buildings cluttering the Mall. These lined the north side, just above the unfinished Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool

None came, and tempos stuck around for many years beyond their projected shelf life. No sooner had the last vestige of slums been cleared from the east end of the Mall in the 1930s, for instance, than a complex called “Tempo R” popped up right across the street from what would one day be our VOA headquarters location. A 1967 plat map of Washington showed Tempo R big as life across from our building, more than two decades after World War II ended.

But tempo clutter could not deter tourists or the march of newer memorials – to Vietnam, World War II, Korean War veterans and others. The thinking went that heroes deserve their due in the greatest, albeit increasingly jammed, plaza in the capital.

Safer But Less Serene
Temporary security fencing, to be followed by slightly more attractive variations, put an end to the free and unfettered access to, and look of, the National Mall

In the security-wary aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America came bulldozers and security fences, bollards and stepped-up U.S. Park Police patrols on the National Mall. “One of the great public spaces of the world . . . is fast collapsing into a symbol of fear, restriction, and bureaucratic control,” Judy Scott Feldman, chairperson of a nonprofit citizens’ and research group called the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, wrote in 2005.

That group keeps posing a pertinent question: Just who’s in charge of the National Mall? It took some persistent unraveling to determine that eight different congressional committees oversee at least six federal agencies that have pieces of the responsibility for the Mall. Congress, the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, and a commission on American battle monuments elbow for authority and sometimes get in each other’s way. The District of Columbia government, the Department of Agriculture, a commission of fine arts, park police, and others also assert authority from time to time.

And there’s another source of confusion: What exactly defines the National Mall? Where does it begin and end, reach and not reach?

This is of little direct import to visitors or to residents like me who walk across the Mall, set up volleyball nets, or jog along its gravel paths. But it’s central to the Mall’s future and the degree to which new memorials or other developments are allowed into its space.

Where Are We, Exactly?
National Mall
What are the boundaries of the National Mall? Click this and pick! Various entities draw the lines differently

Because of those odiferous swamp flats, the National Mall originally stretched only from the Capitol to a hillock upon which the Washington Monument rose. The landfill completed the long rectangle from the Capitol westward to the river that most Americans associate with the Mall. But those City Beautiful planners in the early 20th Century considered the entire Capitol Grounds to be part of the National Mall as well; and they stretched the boundary southward across a tidal basin so that the memorial to President Jefferson could be included. The local government and National Park Service define the Mall in four different ways as well, marked in aqua, red, green, and pink in the accompanying illustration.

“Is it any wonder that Congress – and the agencies with management and review authority – seem confused?” asked the National Coalition to Save Our Mall just last month. “A Congressional Research Service report concluded in 2003 that there is ‘no statutory description or map of the Mall.’ It’s time for one.”

Almost six years later, no one can yet say precisely where National Mall does and does not extend. And this makes it hard to get straight answers when tougher questions get asked:

• Should huge, privately sponsored events such as concerts and kick-off rallies to mark the opening of the National Football League season be allowed to literally take over whole sections of the Mall, kicking out the soccer players and Frisbee throwers and strolling tourists?

The National Mall belongs to all Americans. But it’s not always pure public space. Private entities can rent parts of it, and advertising is not a stranger to its grounds

• To what degree should corporate sponsorship be allowed to advertise in a space that is, if not hallowed, at least revered?

• Who’s responsible for keeping the National Mall safe? Park Police have weightier priorities, including the direct security of a democracy’s grandest monuments, than trying to catch muggers. Yet local cops rarely make pinches in what is generally considered federal space.

• And when is enough enough when it comes to new edifices in what was meant to be an open park? In 2006, ground was broken on a new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial along the Tidal Basin.

No Longer Our Little Secret

That year, the Dallas Morning News editorialized:

“The museums and memorials on the Mall in Washington are about to elbow out your everyday American family. The area is simply overcrowded and becoming more so each year.

“Sure, the stretch from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial remains an inspiring vista, but in its midst is such a clutter of other monuments, security barriers and commercial kiosks that you’d swear you were visiting an amusement park loaded up with Twist-a-Ramas and cotton candy stands.

“What happened to the stateliness? The place where visitors from Idaho and Germany alike stop, reflect and breathe in America?”

Jefferson Memorial
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, stands to the south of the traditional Mall, across a tidal basin. It is now included in many Mall maps

The National Mall, which is sometimes called the nation’s “front yard,” has become an expensive (yet also crowded) yard, stretching, by some reckonings, across golf courses, paddleboat basins, and security fences far beyond anything Pierre L’Enfant had in mind. Numerous visions of the Mall’s third century have been floated, down to and including construction of some sort of beach along the Potomac River.

What Would L’Enfant Say?

In 2005, the D.C. Preservation League, which the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson uncharitably called “a well-meaning group of aesthetes, hobbyists, architects, and civic-minded buttinskis,”[too wild a word even for Wild Words! – but it means meddlers who “butt in” where they don’t belong] placed the National Mall on its list of the region’s most endangered places. The National Trust for Historic Preservation had already done the same.

“Preservationists have a weakness for extravagant overstatement,” Ferguson grumbled. “Yet even a non-preservationist would have to admit that the League is right to draw attention to policies that choke the Mall, threatening to change it irretrievably, and for the worse.”

Having written all this, I resolve to turn off my headsets more often and pay closer attention to all that surrounds me on the Mall of Americans.


My title is a bit of a play on words on the better-known Mall of America, which is plenty large itself. The retail and entertainment complex, in Bloomington, Minnesota, includes 500 specialty stores, 50 restaurants, seven nightclubs, and the largest indoor theme park in America.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Copse. This copse has nothing to do with robbers. It’s a shortened version of the word “coppice,” which is a grove or small thicket of trees.

Plat map. A plan or chart of a piece of land that depicts architectural features such as homes and stores and schools. These maps are often huge and bound in what look like giant scrapbooks. Invaluable historical documents, plat maps show the progression of development in a neighborhood over the years.

Sally. To rush forward, as in a military maneuver. We sometimes add a word and speak of “sallying forth.” In fact, Sally Forth was whimsically borrowed as the name of the main character in a popular newspaper comic strip that debuted in 1982.

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4 responses to “Mall of Americans”

  1. JJ says:

    >Having grown up with the monuments, as a DC native, I would say that their meaning has been changing–particularly when I learn something new about a particular monument (e.g., the Lincoln Memorial is made of Georgia Marble) something new about American History. Sometimes the monuments remind me of how far we have come as a nation. Sometimes, they remind me of how far we have to go. So, more often than not, the monuments are a source of contemplation.Source for Lincoln Memorial Fact:

  2. Hi! Just wanted to say that I really like all your writing way and that so I am going to check your blog continually from now 😉 Stay the best!

  3. tland says:

    What a nice comment from Chauvaux. Best Christmas card I could get! Thanks.

    Ted Landphair

  4. tland says:

    Make that Daria! I flipped your first and last names. It helps to pay attention in my business — or any business.

    Ted Landphair

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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