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The National Mall – L’Enfant’s Vision


a view of National Mall

In 1791, Pierre L’Enfant was hired by President George Washington to create a plan for the capital city, which became known as Washington, DC. In his proposal, L’Enfant included a public promenade that stretched from the Capitol all the way to the Potomac River, which is now called the Mall. While the Mall was originally proposed as open space, during its first hundred years, it was changed into other configurations before being restored to L’Enfant’s vision in the early 1900s.

In 1847, the Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as the Castle) was designed by James Renwick. The U. S. Botanic Garden, one of the oldest botanic Gardens in North America, was moved to the Mall in 1850. (The Conservatory was built in 1933.)

While the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid in 1848, the monument itself was not completed until 40 years later due to funding issues and the Civil War. It opened to the public in 1888.

The Tidal Basin was created in the 1870’s to harness the power of the tides in the Potomac River to flush silt and sediment from the Washington Channel.

The U. S. National Museum, now known as the Arts and Industries Building opened in 1881.

The Army Medical Museum and Library was constructed in 1887, where the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden is located. Even though the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, the building was demolished in 1969.The collections of the Medical Museum were relocated to several Army installations in Maryland.

By 1900, a railroad station and tracks, industrial buildings and a series of tree-filled Victorian gardens shared the space with the various buildings and the Washington Monument. In 1902, the McMillan Plan, named for Senator James McMillan of Michigan who chaired the commission overseeing the Mall area, restored the Mall to L’Enfant’s vision.

After the restoration of the uncomplicated expanse of grass, and a narrowing of the Mall itself, we start to see the rest of the buildings and memorials as described in the McMillan Plan and that we know today, being built in and around the Mall:

  • In 1910, the “new” U.S. National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History, opened with about 10 million objects from the now too small National Museum.
  • From 1912 to 1920, Cherry Trees were planted around the Tidal Basin
  • In 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is dedicated.
  • In 1923, the Freer Gallery of Art was built after Charles Lang Freer donated his Asian and American art collection.
  • 1931 saw the dedication of the D.C. War Memorial, honoring the men and women who died serving in World War I.
  • In 1941, Financier Andrew W. Mellon made a gift to the nation of the National Gallery of Art Building, designed by John Russell Pope.
  • The Jefferson Memorial, also designed by John Russell Pope, was dedicated in 1943, on the 200th Anniversary of Jefferson’s birth.
  • 21 years later, in 1964, the sixth Smithsonian building on the Mall, the National Museum of American History opened, preserving more than 3 million artifacts.
  • In 1974, the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden replaced the 1887 Army Medical Museum and Library.
  • In 1976, the National Air and Space Museum was built on the test site for a Civil War Balloon corps.
  • In 1978, the modern East Building of the National Gallery of Art, designed by I. M. Pei opened.
  • 1982 saw the dedication of one of the most visited memorials on the Mall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which lists the names of more than 58,000 servicemen and women who died in the war.
  • In 1987, the Enid Haupt Garden opened, between the Smithsonian Castle and Independence Ave.
  • The Vietnam Women’s Memorial, dedicated in 1993, honors the more than 250,000 women who served during the Vietnam War, most as nurses.
  • The Korean War Veterans War Memorial which was dedicated in 1995, honors the 5.8 million Americans who served and the more than 36,000 who died.
  • In 1997, the FDR Memorial opened near the Tidal Basin. It  recounts the history of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 4 terms in office.
  • In 2004, the National World War II Memorial was dedicated, honoring the 16 million Americans who served in the war and the more than 40,000 who died.
  • The National Museum of American Indian also opened in 2004, housing one of the largest collections of artifacts from native peoples in the Western Hemisphere.
  • In 2011, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opened, becoming another focal point around the Tidal Basin.
  • Finally, in 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian’s 19th museum opened.

There is not one building or memorial on the National Mall that has not been photographed (easily) a million times! But have you photographed them from the unique perspective that you have when you take a safari offered by WPS?

We offer safaris at many times during the day – early morning (Paris on the Potomac, Sunrise on the National Mall, Early Morning DC Architecture), daytime (DC By Day: A Smartphone User’s ParadiseNational Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum by Smartphone, National Gallery of Art by Smartphone), and at night (DC at Night by SmartphoneMonuments at Night, Full Moonrise Over the Jefferson Memorial) to give you multiple opportunities to capture that memorable image with your camera or smartphone!

Check out the WPS website for additional safaris, see what interests you and book your space today!

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