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National Mall

Washington, D.C.

  • traffic pointers Don't forget the video at the end!
National Mall National Mall National Mall National Mall National Mall National Mall

The National Mall is an open-area national park in downtown Washington, D.C. The National Park Service (NPS) administers the National Mall, which is part of its National Mall and Memorial Parks unit. The term National Mall commonly includes areas that are officially part of West Potomac Park and Constitution Gardens to the west, and often is taken to refer to the entire area between the Lincoln Memorial and the United States Capitol, with the Washington Monument providing a division slightly west of the center. The National Mall receives approximately 24 million visitors each year.

In his 1791 plan for the future city of Washington, D.C., Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant envisioned a garden-lined "grand avenue" approximately 1 mile in length and 400 feet wide, in an area that would lie between the Capitol building and an equestrian statue of George Washington to be placed directly south of the White House (see L'Enfant Plan). The National Mall occupies the site of this planned "grand avenue", which was never constructed. The Washington Monument stands near the planned site of its namesake's equestrian statue. Mathew Carey's 1802 map is reported to be the first to name the area as "The Mall".

During the early 1850s, architect and horticulturist Andrew Jackson Downing designed a landscape plan for the Mall. Over the next half century, federal agencies developed several naturalistic parks within the Mall in accordance with Downing's plan. Two such areas were Henry Park and Seaton Park. In addition, railroad tracks crossed the Mall on 6th Street, west of the Capitol. Near the tracks, a large market (Central Market) and a railroad station rose on the north side of the Mall. Greenhouses belonging to the U.S. Botanic Garden appeared near the east end of the Mall.

In 1901 the McMillan Commission's plan, which was partially inspired by the City Beautiful Movement and which purportedly extended L'Enfant's plan, called for a radical redesign of the Mall that would replace its greenhouses, gardens, trees, and commercial/industrial facilities with an open space. The plan differed from L'Enfant's by replacing the 400 feet wide "grand avenue" with a 300 feet wide vista containing a long and broad expanse of grass. Four rows of American elm (Ulmus americana) trees planted fifty feet apart between two paths or streets would line each side of the vista. Buildings housing cultural and educational institutions constructed in the Beaux-Arts style would line each outer path or street, on the opposite side of the path or street from the elms.

In subsequent years, the vision of the McMillan plan was generally followed with the planting of American elms and the layout of four boulevards down the Mall, two on either side of a wide lawn. In accordance with a plan that it completed in 1976, the NPS converted the two innermost boulevards (Washington and Adams Drives) into gravel walking paths. The two outermost boulevards (Jefferson Drive Southwest (SW) and Madison Drive Northwest (NW)) remain paved and open to vehicular traffic.

In 1918 contractors for the United States Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks constructed the "Main Navy" and "Munitions" Buildings along nearly a third of a mile of the south side of Constitution Avenue (then known as B Street), from 17th Street NW to 21st Street NW. Although the Navy intended the buildings to provide temporary quarters for the United States military during World War I, the reinforced concrete structures remained in place until 1970. Much of the buildings' area then became Constitution Gardens, which was dedicated in 1976.

On October 15, 1966, the National Mall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1981, the NPS prepared a National Register nomination form that documented the Mall's historical significance. More recently, the 108th United States Congress enacted the Commemorative Works Clarification and Revision Act of 2003, which prohibits the sitting of new commemorative works and visitor centers in a designated reserve area within the cross-axis of the Mall.

I've walked the distance of the Mall several times over the past 30 years or so. Each visit brings new revelations to me. The history and scenery is overpowering. I always look forward to another visit to The Mall.

A Walk on the National Mall