Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who laid out the street plan for the District of Columbia, had a grand vision for the National Mall, the so-called “Grand Avenue.” It was to run west from the Capitol to a point directly south of the President’s House where its terminus would be crowned by an equestrian statue of George Washington. According to L’Enfant’s plan, the Mall was to be “four hundred feet in breadth, and about a mile in length, bordered by gardens, ending in a slope from the houses on each side.”

To realize L’Enfant’s dream things started slowly and then petered out completely. Then the Civil War came and the Mall grounds were used for military purposes, such as bivouacking and parading troops, slaughtering cattle and producing arms. In 1872, at 6th and B streets, a 14-acre tract was given to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad for construction of a depot; the railroad was also granted permission to lay tracks across the Mall.

The National Mall was on the verge of disappearing altogether when, in 1902, Senator James McMillan of Michigan opened hearings to revisit L’Enfant’s original ideas. The first thing to do was tear down therailroad station and pull up the tracks. The swamps were drained and canals filled. Grass was planted and four rows of majestic American elm trees installed on the edges the entire length of the Mall. It was decided that all public buildings to be constructed would be created in the image of ancient Rome and Athens.   

Today there are nine museums on the Mall, two entrances for underground museums, and the Department of Agriculture. Our walking tour begins at the east end in the shadow of the United States Capitol, following along the southern edge and returning along the northern side...


National Air and Space Museum
6th Street, SW and Independence Avenue

The National Air and Space Museum was completed in 1976, designed by the St. Louis firm of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum that had the mandate of creating an impressive building - but not so attention-grabbing that it would detract from the Capitol nearby. Their glass and granite cube with 200,000 square feet of displays is the most popular of the Smithsonian museums and one of the world’s most-visited. Among the aviation stars here are the Wright Brothers’ first Kitty Hawk flyer as well as the Apollo II space capsule. 

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue at Seventh Street, SW

Joseph H. Hirshhorn sailed to New York City from Latvia with his family in 1903 when he was four years old. His widowed mother settled with her thirteen children (Joseph was #12) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. In his teens the financially astute Hirschhorn was a stockbroker on Wall Street with a six-figure income. He cashed out his portfolio to the tune of some $4 million two months before the stock market crashed in 1929 and then made real money in oil and uranium mining. He pursued art with the same zeal he used in business, becoming one of the world’s foremost experts in modern art; his gift of 6,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and mixed-media works established his namesake museum on the National Mall. The architectural firm of Louis Skidmore, Nathaniel Owings and John O. Merrill designed the round concrete building in 1976 to be as controversial as the modern art that hung inside. Lester Collins added the sunken sculpture garden hard by the Mall in 1981. 

Arts and Industries Building
900 Jefferson Drive, SW

Designed in a High Victorian style by the busy Washington architectural firm of Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze, the Arts and Industries Building represents the least expensive and most quickly constructed major structure ever undertaken by the United States government. The hurry was that America’s landmark Centennial Exhibition of 1876 had ended in triumph and Congress wanted to save the displays. The fireproof building, dressed in fanciful polychrome brick, was authorized in 1879 and opened in time to host the inaugural ball of President James A. Garfield in 1881. 

The Smithsonian Building
1000 Jefferson Drive, SW

It must be said that British scientist James Smithson left one unusual will. Smithson left the entirety of his estate to a nephew with the provision that should said nephew die without heirs all the money will pass “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson never traveled to America and no correspondent on these shores has ever been identified. Smithson died in 1829 and his nephew passed six years later, indeed with no heirs. And so his entire fortune of more than 100,000 gold sovereigns landed on the doorstep of the United States Mint. The coins were converted into more than $500,000. It took eight years of squabbling in Congress over the unexpected gift before the Smithsonian Institution was established. Completed in 1855, the original Smithsonian Institution Building came from the pen of architect James Renwick Jr., whose designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Renwick tapped the Norman style from medieval England for the museum building, executed with red sandstone carted to the site from Seneca Creek, Maryland. 

S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Drive, SW

The gallery opened in 1987 to house a gift of some 1,000 works of Asian art from Arthur M. Sackler, a New York research physician who made a fortune in medical advertising and trade publications. Among the highlights of his collection were early Chinese bronzes and jades, Chinese paintings and lacquerware, ancient Near Eastern ceramics and metalware, and sculpture from South and Southeast Asia. Sackler also donated $4 million toward construction of the gallery. The copper-domed kiosk leads to underground galleries, a small conference center and meeting rooms. 

Freer Gallery of Art
Jefferson Drive at 12th Street, SW

Charles Lang Freer was a New Yorker who made his money in Detroit building railroad cars. He made so many that by the end of the 1900s his Michigan-Peninsular Car Company was the industrial state’s largest manufacturer. But his health was failing and doctors told him to pursue less stressful endeavors so Freer turned to art collecting. In the end, Freer’s building and art represents the most valuable gift ever presented to the American government by a single individual. The Italian-Renaissance-style gallery, constructed in granite and marble, was designed by American architect Charles Platt.  

Department of Agriculture
12th Street and Independence Avenue, SW

When the federal government designed a grand make-over for the city to build only in the Neoclassical style in 1902, this was the first project undertaken on the south side of the National Mall. The universal vision for the Mall was not fully formed at the time and planners initially sited the massive Department of Agriculture building smack in the middle of the Mall. President Theodore Roosevelt personally intervened to slide it back a bit. The cornerstone was laid in 1905 but funding problems delayed the completion of the building until 1930. The projecting center is fashioned of gleaming Georgia white Cherokee marble; the wings use Vermont marble and the foundation is Massachusetts granite. The entire building has a floor space of 300,000 square feet.


Auditors Main Building
14th Street and Independence Avenue, SW

This dark red-brick Victorian pile was designed in 1880 by James G. Hill, head of the Office of the Supervising Architect of the United States Department of the Treasury, as the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. This is what governemnt buildings looked like before the wave of Neoclassical monoliths from the early 20th century washed over the town. 


U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Raoul Wallenberg Place, between 14th and 15th streets, SW

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, designed with a sobering presence in 1993 by Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, is the American government’s memorial to the genocide perpetrated by German Nazis in World War II. The collection includes more than 49 million pages of archival documents, 80,000 historical photographs, and a thousand hours of film footage

Jefferson Memorial
The Tidal Basin

The Jefferson Memorial came late to the Mall party. Plans for a grand remembrance to the third President coagulated during the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The President himself chose a Neoclassical design by John Russell Pope, modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, and laid the cornerstone in 1939. The building of Vermont white marble, Georgia granite, Tennessee pink and gray marble and Indiana limestone was ready for dedication on April April 13, 1943 - the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth. The 19-foot bronze statue of Jefferson, gazing across the water in the direction of the White House, was crafted by Rudolph Evans in 1941.

FDR Memorial  
Tidal Basin

Designer Lawrence Halprin started work on this project, the fourth to honor a United States President on the National Mall, in 1974. More than 6,000 tons of Carnellan granite, quarried in South Dakota, with a small amount of “Academy Black” granite from California mixed in - enough to erect an 80-story building - was used in the construction of the memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That includes 75,000 square feet of granite pavers and 31,000 pieces of stone. The FDR Memorial is also the first presidential memorial to honor a First Lady and a dog. Fala, a Scottish Terrier, was a gift from Roosevelt’s cousin in 1940 and followed him everywhere until the President’s death in 1945. Fala lived another seven years and Eleanor Roosevelt claimed the dog never really adjusted to the loss. The memorial was dedicated by President Bill Clinton in 1997.  


District of Columbia World War Memorial on the Mall south of 19th Street, NW

This Doric temple of fine Vermont marble was a gift of the citizens of Washington to honor those who died during World War I; it was authorized in 1924 and dedicated on Armistice Day, November 11, 1931.

Korean War Veterans Memorial on the Mall between Independence Avenue and the Reflecting Pool

The Korean memorial, dedicated in 1995, is in the form of a triangle intersecting a circle. Within the triangle are 19 stainless steel statues designed by Frank Gaylord, each larger than life-size. The figures represent a squad on patrol, drawn from each branch of the armed forces.

Lincoln Memorial
west end of the Mall

The movement to build a suitable remembrance to honor America’s first assassinated President began almost immediately after his death. Decisions could not be made on the form and location. The Lincoln Memorial eventually took the shape of a Greek Temple placed in a reclaimed swamp directly opposite the Capitol building over a mile down the Mall. Henry Bacon gave the temple 36 Doric columns representing the number of states in the Union in 1865. Daniel Chester French sculpted the monumental sitting Lincoln of Colorado marble.  


Vietnam Veterans Memorial
on the Mall in Constitution Gardens

Maya Ying Lin, a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale University, won the design competition for this memorial that was dedicated in 1982. The wall is fashioned from black granite quarried near Bangalore, India. In 1984, an American flag and a sculpture showing three servicemen were added to the memorial. In 1993, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was added to represent the work of America’s women veterans.

Reflecting Pool
on the Mall between the Lincoln Monument and Washington Monument

The original 1902 plan for the Mall called for a reflecting pool but it took almost twenty years to become a reality. This is the largest of Washington’s reflecting pools, stretching 170 yards short of a half-mile down the Mall.

Signers Memorial
on the Mall in Constitution Gardens

Built on a tiny island in a lake in Constitution Gardens, this is Washington’s only monument to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, an event that took place before the city was even imagined. Each signer gets a block of red marble and his signature is immortalized in oversized gold script. The blocks are arranged in a semi-circle that is supposed to suggest the figures depicted in John Trumbull’s famous painting of the rebellious gathering. 

National World War II Memorial
17th Street, between Constitution and Independence avenues

The World War II Memorial honors the 16 million who served in the armed forces of the United States, the more than 400,000 who died, and all who supported the war effort from the homefront. 

Washington Monument
The Mall

Plans to honor George Washington began in 1783 before there was a federal government. Although the Monument was authorized by Congress, little action was taken, even after the capital city named for him was established. Washington’s 1799 death rekindled calls for a memorial but lack of funds intervened. The cornerstone for a flat-topped obelisk designed by South Carolina architect Robert Mills would not be laid until 1848. Mills had in mind a busy memorial with a statue of General Washington helming a chariot inside a circular colonnade with statues of thirty prominent Revolutionary War heroes scattered about. But construction dragged on, Mills died and his successor, Thomas L.Casey, pared down the original plan to an unadorned Egyptian obelisk. Finally the monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885, and officially opened to the public on October 9, 1888. Here are its vital stats: height - 555 feet and 5 1/8 inch; weight - 81, 120 tons; walls - 15 feet thick at the base and 18 inches at the pyramidical top; steps - 896; composition - white marble blocks from Maryland with a few from Massachusetts, underlain by Maryland blue gneiss and Maine granite.  

National Museum of American History
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW

The National Museum of American History collects artifacts of all kinds - currently some three million in America’s attic - to preserve a record of American life. That record is preserved in a less ambitious building that dates to 1964. 

National Museum of Natural History
10th St. & Constitution Avenue, NW

This was the first building constructed on the north side of the Mall after the McMillan Commission’s declaration that all of Washington be slathered in Neoclassicism. The architectural firm of Joseph Coerten Hornblower and James Rush Marshall, which had a knack for formal-looking monoliths, created this depository for what now exceeds over 125 million items. It was completed in 1911 with a price tag of $3.5 million.

National Gallery of Art - West Building
6th St. & Constitution Avenue, NW

The National Gallery of Art was created in 1937 for the people of the United States of America by a joint resolution of Congress, accepting the gift of financier and art collector Andrew W. Mellon. Mellon started collecting with just that in mind more than a decade earlier and his foundation funded the building by John Russell Pope.

National Gallery of Art - East Building
4th St. & Constitution Avenue, NW

In 1974 I.M. Pei was called on to deliver an expansion building to the National Gallery on a difficult triangular adjacent. Pei delivered a similarly shaped planning grid with dramatic circulation space for a semi-underground building with pyramidal skylights. Washington’s major art gallery provides 110,000 square feet of main exhibition space and 16,000 more square feet of temporary exhibition areas. The building helped to shape attitudes to museum building throughout the country.