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The Making of the Mall

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Photograph by Francis Hacker, Library of Congress    
By Cliff Tarpy

Lots of folks like Washington, D.C.'s, new World War II Memorial. Lots of others don't—including those who sued to halt its construction. It turns out that Americans have always had trouble agreeing on how to use the National Mall.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The grandest stage in the United States—the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—is rarely quiet. People swarm here to visit museums, protest injustice, or simply play. Even when the Mall is quiet, it's thunderous, reverberating with history and memory: for instance, a family leaving a flag beneath the name of a loved one etched into the granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And now, after stinging debate, people can come to pay homage to the 405,399 Americans who died in World War II.
Inspired by formal French designs like the Palace of Versailles, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who laid out Washington in 1791, envisioned the Mall as a grand avenue with stately gardens. It hasn't turned out that way. As it bore witness to the progress and travails of a boisterous nation, the Mall has been torn up, redesigned, hemmed in by a growing city, and altered for security. The Mall's stewards face the tricky task of balancing competing demands. Groups work to erect memorials. Preservationists try to block them, hoping to perpetuate the Mall's open vistas. The issue: When does use become overuse?

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Online Extra
Learn what D.C. hangouts and hideaways made the favorites list for National Geographic staffers.

Take a 180° tour of the Mall in its early days.

How do you think the National Mall should be used?

E-greet a friend with this 1935 image of the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument in all their spotlighted splendor.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
It all started with a bison calf.
The seeds to the National Zoo were sown in the late 1880s when a visionary taxidermist started a small collection of live animals on the National Mall. In 1886 William Temple Hornaday, then the Smithsonian Institution's chief taxidermist, made an excursion out West to capture bison specimens for preservation and display at the Smithsonian. He also brought back a live bison calf, which lived on the Smithsonian's grounds and attracted many passersby. Hornaday was able to use this public interest to petition the director of the National Museum, G. Brown Goode, to establish a Department of Living Animals. The ostensible purpose of keeping live animals on hand was to give museum taxidermists models "from life" for their works, but Hornaday was also a conservationist and wanted to help save species native to the continent (bison had already been slaughtered by the million and were nearly extinct). An official collection of North American birds and mammals was begun in 1887, with Hornaday named the first curator. The number of specimens grew quickly, and the department was a great hit with the public. In 1889, as the result of a proposal by Hornaday and Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley, Congress established the National Zoo, and in 1890 it was designated a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1891 the animals were removed from the Mall to settle into their new home in Rock Creek Park, where the National Zoo remains today.
—Elizabeth Snodgrass
Did You Know?

Related Links
Washington, D.C.: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary
Featuring a good mix of historical and practical information, this 100-page website walks you through sections of Washington, D.C. (including the National Mall), focusing on history and giving locations and hours of museums and other sites open to the public.  Essays on the L'Enfant and McMillan plans, the federal government presence in Washington, and the evolution of D.C.'s neighborhoods are especially interesting.
Creation of the National Mall
Explore the Mall through history at this two-part National Park Service website, which includes a short text on the history of the National Mall and a time line of historic events.
National Coalition to Save Our Mall
A leading voice in keeping the Mall open and accessible to all as a symbol of a democratic society, the National Coalition to Save Our Mall manages an extensive website with numerous links to useful sections including: history of the Mall, monuments and memorials, who's who in planning for the Mall, and recent media coverage of debates about the Mall.
National World War II Memorial
Couldn't make it to the May 29 dedication of the WWII Memorial?  Make a cyber visit via this website.  Explore sections covering the design, construction, and funding of the memorial, and access a WWII registry of people who helped fight the war.
Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian Institution
Explore this site for "a visual tour of the Smithsonian Institution from its founding to today."  Click on individual museum and building links for pictorial histories of the evolution of the Smithsonian Institution, including links to the Castle and the National Zoo.
Pierre Charles L'Enfant
Arlington National Cemetery has gathered an interesting collection of writings about L'Enfant, including some from news reports contemporary to his reinternment at Arlington Cemetery in 1909.  The last article in the column puts forth a compelling argument for referring to "Pierre" as "Peter" instead.
Naval Historical Center
If you think the Mall is crowded now, take a look at these aerial photos taken during World Wars I and II.  Military buildings crowd the Mall; during the construction of the Reflecting Pool, the buildings to the north even affected the shape of the pool, cancelling out a planned cross-bar of water.

Some organizations involved in planning for the Mall:

National Capital Planning Commission
This site offers interesting links, including the history of the NCPC, key activities, and the history of planning in Washington.
Commission of Fine Arts
Established by Congress in 1910, the Commission of Fine Arts advises the federal and D.C. governments on art and architecture that affect the look of the nation's capital. This includes public building projects and public grounds such as the National Mall.
Trust for the National Mall
Learn more about the organization and its goals, sign up for e-mail updates, or donate money.


Allen, Thomas B. The Washington Monument: It Stands for All. Discovery Books, 2000.
Goode, James M.  Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington's Destroyed Buildings, 2nd ed. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.
The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., selected and introduced by Coretta Scott King.  Newmarket Press, 1987.
Longstreth, Richard, ed. The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991.  National Gallery of Art, 1991.
Penczer, Peter R. The Washington National Mall. Oneonta Press (forthcoming).
Reps, John W. Monumental Washington: The Planning and Development of the Capital Center. Princeton University Press, 1967.


NGS Resources
Stephenson, Michael, ed. Battlegrounds: Geography and the History of Warfare. National Geographic Books, 2003.
Tarpy, Cliff. "Saluting the Troops." National Geographic (June 2002), 38-41.
Goldman, Melanie D. "Tall Story." National Geographic World (November 1999), 14-16.
Preston, Lydia. "Vietnam Women's Memorial." National Geographic Traveler (November/December 1993), 18.
Aikman, Lonnelle, and Frank Freidel. George Washington: Man and Monument. National Geographic Books, 1973.
Warren, Charles. "The Washington National Monument Society." National Geographic (June 1947), 739-44.


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