A debate is taking place right now on how best to protect and preserve one of America’s national treasures, the National Mall, and ensure that it remains what Pierre L’Enfant first imagined it to be—an open space featuring statues and memorials to honor worthy citizens.
One view is to revisit the 1901 McMillan Plan. Based on the recommendations of a commission that included luminaries such as Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the McMillan Plan, part of the City Beautiful movement at the beginning of the 20th century, called for “open grand axial vistas on the Mall . . . [defined] edges and . . . great temples to government and culture.” Emphasizing the ceremonial core of the city, the McMillan Plan outlined the Mall as we know it today.
The other approach is essentially to start anew. Believing that reverence and strict adherence to the McMillan Plan has actually been a detriment to the space, some argue that if the country really wants to honor L’Enfant’s vision, it should keep the major monuments that have earned their spot in America’s consciousness, but rid the Mall of the outdated memorials that have lost their meaning or have simply “served their purpose.” This would open up the area, make it greener, and mark a return of sorts to the Mall of the 19th century.
It is an interesting debate, but the missing element is arguably also the most important: how should what exists now be cared for, restored, and improved to meet the growing number of visitors?
While the National Mall is a beautiful and functional space, it serves a purpose beyond hosting Capitol Hill softball tournaments and annual National Cherry Blossom Festival events. It is sacred, hallowed ground that Americans cherish and respect as a symbol for the more than 30 million residents and tourists who visit each year. By paying tribute to the sacrifices made by soldiers, by giving life to the bold vision of American progress set forth by its greatest presidents, and by bearing witness to the defining moments that shaped generations, the Mall—America’s Front Yard—inspires like no other park in the nation. But it also is in great disrepair.
The last full restoration of the Mall was undertaken 35 years ago as part of America’s Bicentennial, and there is evidence of the lack of upkeep and care everywhere: the Reflecting Pool is fouled by algae; the Jefferson Memorial seawall is sinking; fragile cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin die at an alarming rate; and the two-mile (3.2-km) stretch from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol requires a complete reengineering in order for grass to grow.
To reverse the cycle of neglect and preserve the Mall, the Trust for the National Mall, a group of leaders dedicated to raising awareness of the Mall’s state of disrepair, is trying to raise the funds needed to restore it. The trust has been eagerly awaiting the release of the National Mall Plan so that fund-raising can start in earnest.
More than four years in the making, and integrating input from 20 federal agencies and comments from more than 30,000 Americans from every state, the Mall Plan sets forth a visionary solution for repairing the current damage, improving infrastructure, and maintaining restoration work over the long term. It will serve as the trust’s blueprint for a national campaign on the scale of the 1980s effort on behalf of restoring the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island. From improved facilities to sustainable practices— Coca-Cola Co. has partnered with the trust, investing $500,000 to create the Mall’s first recycling program— the National Mall Mall Plan is a detailed roadmap for improving and restoring the Mall.
As the national stage for protests, rallies, and events, the National Mall plays a significant role in advancing the principles of democracy, justice, and freedom. It is the setting for change and progress. It is the place where Americans and international visitors alike come to remember and reflect upon the history of our great nation.
Mollie Beattie, the first woman to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, once said: “What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.” By neglecting the National Mall, Americans neglect their history, what they have become as a nation, and the kind of nation they aspire to be.