The National Mall: far more than grass, flowers and trees

Special To The Sun

At first glance, the National Mall appears to be only the sum of its physical attributes: a vast expanse of grass growing among monuments and museums.

But it is on this stretch of lawn, flowers and trees that this country has lived its life.

From civil rights marches to the very first Earth Day, from war protests to the annual Fourth of July fireworks, the National Mall is our national front yard.

The monuments that line the mall, bounded by Constitution and Pennsylvania avenue Northwest on the north, First Street on the east, Independence and Maryland avenues on the south and 14th Street on the west, are easily taken at face value. But there is so much more behind these stone facades.

The past

Conceived by George Washington himself and designed by Washington's friend Pierre L'Enfant, the mall was supposed to be a promenade with flower beds and fountains, shade trees and reflecting pools.

But L'Enfant was dismissed from the project, and Washington eventually died. The mall was given over to utilitarian purposes; during the Civil War, troops camped there, and a Baltimore and Ohio railroad station was established there in 1854.

It wasn't until 1897 that Congress officially recognized the mall once more and set aside 723 acres of land as Potomac Park. A commission appointed to study the park and L'Enfant's design suggested adding a reflecting pool, erecting a monument to Abraham Lincoln and restoring the grassy field at the park's center.

The railroad station was removed, and the pool, pathways, trees and flowers were added. In 1912, Japanese officials donated 3,000 Japanese cherry blossom trees.

The mall once more became a makeshift military camp during World War I, but military operations ceased there at the end of the war, and the National Park Service was given jurisdiction over the mall in 1933.

The present

The National Park Service has rangers and other staff stationed at the memorials who are well-versed about each memorial and the mall itself. The ranger station (near the Washington Monument) and most of the memorials and monuments are open 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every day except Christmas. Admission to most sites is free, though some require tickets, many distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

The sites

U.S. Capitol (east end of the mall): Begun in 1793, the United States Capitol building was designed and built by a number of different architects as visions for the building and its use changed over time. In August 1814, the Capitol was set on fire by British troops during the War of 1812. Fortunately, heavy rain kept the building from burning down. The chambers for the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as the Supreme Court, were finished in 1819. The architect at that time, Charles Bulfinch of Boston, enlarged the center dome that remains the building's most noted feature today. By the middle of the 19th century, the Capitol was expanded again to accommodate the growing government. The north and south wings were doubled, and the dome was enlarged.

During the Civil War, construction came to a halt, and the Capitol was used by Union troops. President Abraham Lincoln restarted construction in 1862 as proof that the Capitol - like the Union - would go on in spite of the country's inner turmoil.

The early 20th century saw the addition of 102 more rooms, but now modern architects are focusing on renovating and preserving the building. The Capitol Visitor Center, begun after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, is expected to be completed in 2005.

On Dec. 11, the Congressional Holiday Tree will be lit on the Capitol's West Front.

Washington Monument (accessible from 15th Street): The Washington Monument was built between 1848 and 1884 as a memorial to the first president. Originally conceived by L'Enfant as a statue of Washington on horseback, the monument went through a number of designs before it became the unadorned obelisk we see today. Visitors climb 897 steps (or take an elevator) to reach the observation area at the top. Sept. 7 to April 4, the monument is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Lincoln Memorial (west end of the mall, 202-426-6841): Designed in the neoclassical style of the ancient temples of Greece, the Lincoln Memorial is a monument to the president who managed to keep the country united despite the Civil War. It has also become a monument to truth and freedom, democracy and tolerance. The memorial is nearly 100 feet high and includes a column for each of the 36 states in the Union during Lincoln's presidency. The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's second inaugural address are carved into the walls, and the center of the monument features a 19-foot-high sculpture of Lincoln.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial (south bank of the Tidal Basin, 202-426-6841): The country's third president inspired his share of controversy during his time, and the memorial to him was no different. Legislated by Congress in 1934, the site prompted public outcry from the beginning because construction meant Japanese flowering cherry trees would have to be moved. Modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, the design was not initially well-received, either. The circular architecture of the monument was brought to this country by Jefferson himself and is similar to the design of buildings at Monticello. Jefferson is depicted in bronze, looking toward the White House.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Bacon Drive and Constitution Avenue): Of all the monuments in Washington, "the Wall" provokes the most emotional reaction. Its black granite panels are inscribed with more than 58,000 names of those killed and missing in the Vietnam War. The veterans who led the drive to build the Wall wanted to show the price of war in a way that would provoke political leaders and other to think before the country entered other conflicts. The site is also home to the Vietnam Women's Memorial and the Three Servicemen Statue.

Korean War Veterans Memorial (French Drive Southwest): One of the most recent additions to the mall, the Korean War Veterans Memorial has much symbolism in its design. Nineteen larger-than-life-size sculptures of soldiers trudge uphill among granite slabs and juniper bushes. The statues are reflected in a nearby wall, doubling the troops to 38 - which represents the 38th Parallel, where the battles took place. The "Wall of Faces" along the south side of the memorial shows etchings of the faces of 2,000 Korean War veterans. The Pool of Remembrance represents the more than 54,000 U.S. citizens lost in Korea.

Getting there

You can find driving directions at the sites listed below. In addition, the Washington subway system has a number of routes that lead to the mall. Take Metro's orange or blue line to the Smithsonian, Capitol South or Foggy Bottom stops, among others.

For more information

  • National Park Service, 202-426-6841
  • Washington, D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp., 202-789-7000.
  • For advance tickets to the Washington Monument only, call 800-967-2283.
  • On the Web:, or
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