Housing Complex

Building Museum Curator: National Mall Plans are “Timid”

A 1901 plan for the Washington Monument grounds. (Commission on Fine Arts)

National Building Museum senior vice president G. Martin Moeller Jr. knows the full scope of dreams that have been dreamt about the nation's capitol—after all, he put together a whole exhibit about the ones that didn't work out.* In comparison, the National Park Service's grand plan for the Mall doesn't go very far, focusing mostly on making the landscape more durable for large events and protests. In a subscription-only BizJo editorial today, Moeller outlines the Mall's fundamental problem: Beyond the fact that low residential density in the surrounding area means it's little-used by locals, it also suffers from "long-standing misconceptions about the Mall’s civic significance and its place in the overall urban design of Washington."

The plan calls for a new “welcome plaza” and “high-quality visitor amenities and facilities,” such as food service establishments, nestled within the groves of trees lining the north and south sides of the Mall. Such proposals are encouraging but also appear timid.

The text and drawings in my copy of the plan suggest a small number of unexceptional-looking service structures intended to be “sensitive to the National Mall’s historic context.” Yet those peripheral areas could easily accommodate a substantial number of small cafes and other pavilions, perhaps 10 or more, providing places of respite for tourists and attractive destinations for locals without compromising the character of the broader landscape. Moreover, those little structures could be — should be — exceptional works of architecture in their own right, rather than merely “background” buildings.

For instance, I could imagine a series of elegant, mostly glass pavilions that would be simultaneously less obtrusive and more engaging than the humble, dark wood sheds that dot parks across the country. So while I welcome the Park Service’s initiative to improve the Mall, the current plan—which, in fairness, is conceptual—should be regarded as a baseline rather than the limit of our design aspirations.

Moeller finds hope in the design competition being proctored by the more progressive Trust for the National Mall, but also worries that the mostly out-of-town finalists won't emphasize the Mall's value as a living space for the city's residents, not just visitors. The whole piece is a really heartfelt appeal for a change in how the Mall's caretakers understand its constituency, by a guy who has real establishment cred, and I hope Bob Vogel is reading.

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* UPDATE, 10:05 a.m. – Moeller e-mails to clarify that his remarks are his own, and shouldn't be construed as the opinion of the National Building Museum.

  • Thayer-D

    I'm glad to see you look beyond the Classical (Imperial Roman) style of Burnham's plans for DC. Beauty dosen't have to be political.

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