District of Columbia: The National Mall Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The National Mall was part of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s original plan for the city of Washington, D.C. L’Enfant designed the Mall as a promenade of green space in 1790. The Mall was to be a place where the nation remembered its heroes and preserved its culture. L’Enfant’s original plan was never fully implemented, yet the 146-acre Mall contains some of the most important national monuments in the United States: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and Constitution Gardens. Many of the Smithsonian Institution buildings also line the Mall.

Site Office

National Capital Parks-Central

The National Mall

900 Ohio Drive SW

Washington, DC 20242

ph.: (202) 426-6841

Web site: www.nps.gov/nama/

Beginning at the United States Capitol Building and stretching eastward to the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall contains some of the most important memorials in the United States. Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed the area as public space for the erection of monuments, as an arena for the presentation and preservation of culture, and for use by American citizens. Many well-known national memorials are located on the Mall, as is the Smithsonian Institution, the national guardian of our collective history. The Mall is also a place where Americans can gather for celebration, reflection, and protest. The Mall has been the site of demonstrations throughout its history.

The Creation of the National Mall

President George Washington chose the location for the nation’s capital city in 1790 as part of the Residence Act. Washington chose Frenchman Pierre Charles L’Enfant, an engineer and architect, to perform a topographical survey of the town. Washington was acquainted with L’Enfant through L’Enfant’s service to the American Continental Army in its fight against the British in the American Revolution. The choice of the site of the new capital for the nation had been a compromise; southerners in Congress had won a southern capital, while the federal government agreed to pay the debts owed by states and accumulated during the Revolutionary War. At the time that L’Enfant surveyed the ten-square-mile area, the United States government did not own the land. President Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson hoped that the landowners would donate portions of their land to the government with the knowledge that the value of their retained land would increase significantly.

L’Enfant was twenty-two years old when he volunteered for the Continental Army and received a commission as lieutenant of engineers. After the war L’Enfant settled in New York and began a career as an architect. When L’Enfant heard that a new capital was in the making, he wrote to Washington, saying that Washington, D.C., should be a great city, its plan “drawn to such a scale as to leave room for the aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote.”

L’Enfant’s vision of the city informed his judgment, and what he produced was not what his employers thought necessary–a simple topographical survey–but rather a rough sketch of the city he envisioned. L’Enfant presented his ideas to Washington in March, 1791. Later that day Washington acquired the land, and L’Enfant was hired to plan the nation’s capital.

The topography allowed L’Enfant to abandon the traditional grid pattern for a more diverse plan to highlight the scenic views within the new city. L’Enfant’s plan called for a grand cascade coming from Capitol Hill ending in a canal that would empty into the Potomac River. This canal would assist the city to become a commercial center and increase the beauty of the area. Tiber Creek could be used as a forty-foot waterfall, with the water escaping through the canal. Parallel to this the National Mall would be developed as a grand avenue four hundred feet wide, beginning south of the president’s house at a statue of Washington himself. L’Enfant hoped to see public buildings to house government offices, museums, theaters, and foreign embassies surrounding the Mall. L’Enfant envisioned the future Pennsylvania Avenue paved for carriages, lined with trees and theaters, academies, and other cultural attractions.

With Washington’s approval, L’Enfant and his crews started work clearing the land and deciding on the quadrants of the city. Problems about financing L’Enfant’s visionary city soon arose with the city commissioners. The commissioners, along with Jefferson and James Madison, decided to begin selling off city lots in order to increase revenue. L’Enfant disagreed with their strategy, thinking it better to secure loans for the public structures and sell lots as the land values increased. For L’Enfant the matter was more than just semantics. He did not wish to see the city develop in a piecemeal fashion and did not prepare a plan of the city to present at the sale. He then bragged to Washington’s secretary, Tobias Lear, of his doings. Word of his misdeed was relayed to Jefferson, who became hostile, and Washington rebuked L’Enfant for his actions. Relations further declined when L’Enfant took it upon himself to raze a mansion that was being constructed inside the city by Daniel Carroll.

Legally at fault, Washington healed the rift this created between L’Enfant and the commissioners, but in 1792, relations between Jefferson and the commissioners on one side and L’Enfant and his engineers on the other had deteriorated dramatically. The major issue was control over the project; the commissioners and Jefferson believed their authority to be supreme, and L’Enfant believed that the commissioners and Jefferson could not appreciate the technical aspects of the project. All along, Washington tried to bridge the gap between the two parties, but when L’Enfant slighted the emissary Washington had sent to plead with L’Enfant to continue his work under the “full subordination” of the engineers, Washington had had enough and fired L’Enfant.

Washington, D.C., in the Early Nineteenth Century

Washington then commanded L’Enfant’s subordinate, Andrew Ellicott, to amend L’Enfant’s plan. In addition, in 1802, Congress reestablished the Army Corps of Engineers and created a military academy at West Point. Now president, Thomas Jefferson intended these two entities to complement one another, as he foresaw that the training of engineers was to be undertaken at the military school. Hence, West Point graduates would not only defend the country but also build it. Threat of English attack in the first two decades of the nineteenth century prompted fortifications in the city, but very little construction along the Mall. Between 1800 and 1810, Congress spent money only on public buildings, leaving the rest of the city untouched. L’Enfant’s plan had disappeared, and many visitors were appalled at living conditions in the nation’s capital.

After the British burnt the city in 1814, the army began to rebuild not only the fortifications, but the city as well. The Army Corps of Engineers was soon transferred to Washington, D.C., by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, and the city at last had a professional group of men trained to create a city out of forest and swamp.

The Smithsonian Institution and the Washington Monument

While the Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt Washington, D.C., L’Enfant’s plan had not been entirely discarded by Congress. His concept of the Mall as a public space for monuments and American culture was slowly beginning to take hold. Two main additions were conceptualized in the first part of the nineteenth century: the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian Institution.

Congress had authorized a monument to George Washington in 1833, but construction did not begin until 1848. Originally funded privately by the Washington National Monument Society (WNMS), the monument was intended to be a colonnade, but financial considerations forced the abandonment of this plan. The Know-Nothing Party gained control of the WNMS in 1854, when contributions came to a halt, and construction was abandoned. After the Civil War, the Grant administration got the WNMS to donate the monument to the people of the United States, allowing Congress to appropriate funds. In 1885, the monument was completed and dedicated by President Chester A. Arthur. The Washington Monument is 555 feet tall and has 897 steps, which are now closed to the public except during tours led by the National Park Service.

In 1846, Congress had established the Smithsonian Institution to act as a repository and to “increase the diffusion of knowledge of men,” a mission the Institution continues to serve to this day. British scientist James Smithson donated his fortune upon his death as seed money for the Institution. The same year that the Smithsonian Institution was established, it obtained its first building, the Smithsonian Castle, a twelfth century Normal Style building. The Smithsonian Castle is the oldest building on the Mall. James Smithson’s body is entombed in a crypt within the building. The Smithsonian has grown to include many other museums that line the Mall: the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Arts and Industries Building, the Freer Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculptor Garden, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Gallery of Art.

The City Beautiful Movement

The early twentieth century saw the advent of the City Beautiful movement in urban planning, a response to the urban squalor that plagued American cities in the nineteenth century. Congress responded to this in 1902 by creating a park commission that would decide how to develop a District of Columbia park system. The commission consisted of Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York’s Central Park; architect Charles F. McKim; sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and the chair of the commission, Daniel H. Burnham.

The resulting McMillan Plan, named after Senator James McMillan, recommended basically a return to L’Enfant’s original design. However, the plan called for extending L’Enfant’s concept to include the new Potomac Park, as well as the Lincoln Memorial. The Commission decided to clear the Mall of existing structures, frame it with elm trees, and flank it with public buildings. Nothing was to obscure the view linking the Capitol and the future Lincoln Memorial. The McMillan Plan was not entirely adopted by both houses of Congress until 1929, seven years after the completion of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Lincoln Memorial

Congress authorized the building of the Lincoln Memorial, a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, president during the American Civil War (1860-1865), in 1911. Henry Bacon designed the building to resemble the Parthenon in Athens, and Daniel Chester French’s statue of Lincoln sits inside the memorial, along with carved inscriptions of two of Lincoln’s speeches. Thirty-six columns surround the building, representing the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. Above those states are the names of the 48 states in the Union when the memorial was constructed. President Warren G. Harding attended the 1922 dedication.

Constitution Gardens and Green Space

Constitution Gardens is not a traditional monument, yet recent additions have enhanced its function as “a living legacy to the founding of the republic as well as an oasis in the midst of a city landscape.” The fifty-acre site of the park was originally beneath the Potomac River and was created by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging project at the turn of century.

President Richard M. Nixon, appalled by the temporary naval office buildings located here in the 1970’s, began lobbying for their removal. After the Navy finally withdrew from the buildings, they were demolished in 1971. President Nixon ordered that a park be built on the land, leading to the creation of Constitution Gardens. The Gardens were dedicated in 1976 as a living legacy to the American Revolution. In July of 1982, a memorial to the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence was dedicated on the small island in the lake. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan, in honor of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, issued a proclamation making Constitution Gardens a living legacy in tribute to the Constitution. Constitution Gardens has been a separate park unit since 1982.

The Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Memorials

Monument building on the Mall ceased after the construction of the Lincoln Memorial until, in 1980, Congress authorized the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. By this time, the culture of memorializing great events in history had turned more toward remembering the individual sacrifices of Americans rather than erecting edifices for more prominent Americans, such as presidents. The contemporary “monuments” are no longer monuments, but memorials, which are more encompassing in their tributes. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission specified that all of the American dead and missing be included and that the memorial harmonize with its surroundings.

Maya Ying Lin, then an architectural student at Harvard, designed the nontraditional wall, composed of seventy polished, black granite panels inscribed with fifty thousand names of those who lost their lives or are missing in action. The wall is located immediately northeast of the Lincoln Memorial, and the granite walls are imbedded into the gently elevated land of the Mall. When the design drew criticism from veterans’ groups, a decision was made to add Frederick Hart’s statue often called The Three Servicemen. The three soldiers represent different ethnic groups: Caucasian, Latino, and African American. In 1993, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was added to represent the work of women in the Vietnam War.

The next memorial on the Mall was a memorial to a war that began five years after the end of World War II. The Korean War began in 1950, as the communist government of North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States led a United Nations force to the remote Asian peninsula. The memorial to the 1.5 million men and women who fought in the Korean War was erected in 1995. Bringing together depictions of each branch of the armed forces, the Korean War Memorial consists of nineteen stainless steel statues representing a squad on patrol in a triangular “field of service.” The statues are clothed in windblown ponchos depicting the harshness of the weather endured while on duty. A granite curb on the north side of the monument lists the twenty-two United Nations member countries that sent troops or provided support in defense of South Korea. On the south side stands a wall of California Academy black granite, with the etched images of more than 2,400 unnamed service men and women. The numbers of those killed, wounded, missing in action, and taken prisoner of war are etched into the curb. The message “Freedom Is Not Free” faces the counting of the war’s toll. A “pool of remembrance,” encircled by linden trees, stands adjacent to the mural.

Visiting the Mall

The memorials and monuments on the National Mall are open daily from 8:00 a.m. until 11:45 p.m., every day except Christmas Day. The Washington Monument is open daily from 8:00 a.m. until 11:45 p.m. from the first Sunday in April through Labor Day and the rest of the year from 9:00 a.m. until 4:45 p.m. It is also closed on Christmas Day. Most of the Smithsonian Institution museums are open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and offer free admission.

For Further Information
  • Cowdrey, Albert. A City for the Nation: The Army Engineers and the Building of Washington, D.C., 1790-1967. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Engineers, Department of the Army, Government Printing Office, 1979.
  • Green, Constance McLaughlin. Washington: Capital City, 1879-1950. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963.
  • National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Washington D.C.: A Traveler’s Guide to the District of Columbia and Nearby Attractions. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1989.
  • Penczer, Peter R. Washington, D.C., Past and Present. Arlington, Va.: Oneonta Press, 1998.
Categories: History Content