The Answers Issue: Why was the Ellipse created?

Why was the Ellipse created? Can’t they do something better with the space?

Blame Pierre L’Enfant. That less-than-perfect, slightly slanting oval of green space next to the presidential mansion was part of L’Enfant’s original plan of Washington, although it wasn’t called the Ellipse then, and it was more of a rectangle than a curved plot. Opinions on the space’s intended purpose vary, but most agree that the Ellipse was meant for something grander—perhaps as a prominent monument, or as a reminder of Thomas Jefferson’s desire to establish an American prime meridian.

It never happened. The word “ellipse” derives from the Greek term for “falling short,” after all. Over the years, it’s been a public dumping ground, temporary housing for Civil War and World War II soldiers, and a place for people to wait in line for White House events. More notable: According to baseball historian Brian McKenna, the Elllipse’s best claim to fame might just be that it hosted the first recorded baseball game in D.C. history in 1860.

These days, the National Park Service—which assumed oversight of the Ellipse in the early 1930s—claims it’s “used for many community gatherings and functions, including musical performances during the summer.” But Park Service spokesman Bill Line says the number of special-events permits is less than overwhelming. “Surprisingly, not that many [protesters] ask for the Ellipse,” Line said. “A great majority take place on the north side of the White House. That is much, much more commonplace.”

On a positive note, Line says the entire Ellipse was “redone” during the Bush administration, leaving it in pretty decent shape for a patch of grass that’s more than 200 years old. You heard the man. Get down there and use the Ellipse already.

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