Why Does the National Mall Look the Way It Does?

What do you think? Is Washington the most beautiful city in the world? I have to believe that I’m biased, but I do think it is certainly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Okay, there’s Paris, Vienna, Rome, Prague, London, Florence, and no less than several dozen more. But, Washington’s top sites and views are among the best of the world, and I’d be willing to argue that with anyone.

[quote_left]Washington and Jefferson exhibited an active personal interest in the plan of Washington city.[/quote_left]

Folks over 100 years ago certainly felt that way with the McMillan Plan (i.e., the Park Commission). We dug up an article from The Washington Times printed on November 10th, 1907, outlining how amazing the city was going to become with the execution of this plan. The plan focused heavily on improvement of the National Mall and constructing major monuments on the western and southern anchors of the Mall’s ends.

The article points out that one of the key points of the plan was to make the city’s plan more cohesive and connect the public and private lands for a more unified experience. Below is the section about the disjointed design of the city.

Since the days of Madison each park, building, and monument has been designed as an individual entity, without relation to the other, thus the dignity of the composition has been lost. Looking from the Monument to the Capitol one sees a tangle of trees, a jumble of unrelated buildings, jarring one with the other. The unsightly Botanic Garden and the Pennsylvania railway station are prominent and unpleasant objects always in plain view of the Capitol. this model graphically displays the want ot judgement in the disposition of Federal buildings without uniformity of design or grouping, and the thoughtless destruction of the beautiful vistas which constituted the fundamental and distinctive feature of the original plan.

One of the largest tenets of the plan was to open up the National Mall and rid it of the Victorian feel, with trees dotting the landscape (see a picture here).

Explanatory notes from article
Explanatory notes from article

The article continues talking about the need for simplicity and dignity.

The composition contemplates two principal axes, one east and west, beginning with the Capitol and the Grant Memorial in Union square, having as its central feature the Washington Monument, and ending with the Lincoln Memorial, the other beginning with the White House, having as its central feature the Monument Garden ends with the Monument to the Constitution. The planting and roadways of the park, the architectural adornments, and the disposition of new buildings are assigned to emphasize these axes and enhance and dignify the Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Grant Memorials, and the Memorial to the Constitution, which are the principal points of interest and beauty in the composition.

View of the Department of Agriculture, The Smithsonian Castle and the US Capitol taken from atop the Washington Monument
View of the Department of Agriculture, The Smithsonian Castle and the US Capitol taken from atop the Washington Monument

Okay, so that’s a lot of information, and you’re probably asking what the Grant Memorial and Memorial to the Constitution are. Good question. Well, you can read up on the push for a Grant Memorial herehere, and here. All those discuss a much grander vision to memorialize the Civil War general. The location where the Memorial to the Constitution was supposed to be situated because the site of the Jefferson Memorial.

The article goes on to talk about why the Washington Monument is located where it is today. Evidently, engineers were looking for a proper site to locate a foundation for the giant structure. When the location was decided, it wasn’t in line with any long-term plans for the city and was completely out of relations with the surrounding buildings. One of the key points of the McMillan Plan was to create proper relationships between the Washington Monument and surrounding buildings, or those to be built.

The piece continues with a discussion of Frederick Law Olmsted, the prominent landscape architect.

Mr. Olmstead [sic] bears the name identified with what is best in modern landscape architecture in the District of Columbia. He is the consulting landscape architect not only of the vast system of parks and boulevards which make up the metropolitan park system of Boston and its suburbs but also of large parks in various cities. To inherited taste he adds the highest training, both practical and theoretical.

Olmsted was extremely influential in the design of parks across the country, including a little one up in New York called Central Park, as well as another famous park in Brooklyn, Prospect Park.

Below is the article from the Library of Congress archives. Click on it for a larger version to read the whole thing.

- click image for more -
The Washington Times - November 10th 1907
The Washington Times – November 10th 1907
- click image for more -
The Washington Times - November 10th 1907
The Washington Times – November 10th 1907

Source: Library of Congress

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • ET

    I have to say that I like the trees and wish there were more of them. Summer on the mall can be unrelenting and trees would help with that.

    I would be surprised if there is ever a big re-think of the mall as was done with the McMillian plan, even if a lot of people thought that changing it up was necessary.

  • Sheila Gilbert

    I was born in Washington DC, so of course I think it the most beautiful City in the world. All my childhood memories are there. It’s gorgeous.

  • David Fielding

    I was born at GW hospital quite a while back. My earliest memory I was about 9, coming into DC from Kenilworth Ave (the East side of town). It would have been 1970, after the riots. I knew there was a war, I just didn’t realize it came to DC. It wasn’t as beautiful a city back then, and took a long time before folks wanted to live here again.

    Thomas Jefferson offered his own plan of the Capital city around the time L’Enfant was hired to do the plan. Jefferson’s little drawing of the Federal city encompassed about 8 square blocks in Georgetown. Comparatively, L’Enfant’s plan was grandiose beyond measure… incomprehensible really for that time. A 400′ wide grand avenue (the Mall) and 100′ width for Pennsylvania ave. Nothing of that scale existed in the U.S. at that time. Quite a bold stroke for an artist whose largest body of work consisted of drawings of military formations (for Washington). Rather than being hailed for his vision, he was summarily dismissed, his plans stolen, and he spent his remaining years penniless, dependent on friends, continually asking Congress to pay for the work he did planning the city.

    Washington, DC is one of the unlikeliest of cities. A miracle of happenstance that allowed it to become the Capital. Read Scott Berg’s ‘Grand Avenues’.