Dear Coalition Friends,
Last Friday, August 22nd, The Washington Times ran a commentary titled “History is no Accident”, by Deborah Simmons. In her piece she wrote in support of a Museum of African American history to be located on the Mall. Unfortunately, she misrepresented the position of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall in regards to that proposal. She stated, in part:
“There are organizations and individual Americans who do not want the museum built at all, and groups that certainly object to the ideal location on the Mall. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall, for example, objects to a Mall site. If it had its way, the new American museum would be situated near the Holocaust Museum – as if there is any comparison between the two – or another off-the-Mall site.”
You can view that entire article at: http://www.washtimes.com/op-ed/20030821-090039-4094r.htm.
Regardless, today’s (Thursday, August 28th) edition of The Washington Times published a full letter of correction, submitted by Charles I. Cassell, AIA, and Judy Scott Feldman, Ph.D:
The People’s Space
In promoting a Mall site for the African American History and Culture Museum, Deborah Simmons misrepresents the views of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall (“History is no accident,” Friday).
In our testimony in July before the Committee on House Administration, we enthusiastically endorsed the concept of the museum. We support one of the proposed sites on the National Mall – the Arts and Industries Building – because it would entail reuse of an existing historic structure. We have not promoted the “Liberty Loan site” near the Holocaust Museum because we, like Mrs. Simmons, feel it is not sufficiently prominent or accessible.
We agree with Mrs. Simmons about the Mall’s significance – it is “the people’s space,” and it “embodies America’s cultural, democratic ideals and achievement.” That is why we speak out against any new man-made structure that would pave over its dwindling open public space.
Where does it stop? What group is not deserving of a place on the Mall? Almost 20 years ago, then-President Ronald Reagan signed the Commemorative Works Act of 1986 to protect the Mall’s open public spaces. Congress, however, has not shown the political will to uphold it. Those who commemorated the March on Washington last weekend could witness the result: Another deserving group’s memorial – the World War II Memorial – fills the space at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool, where in 1963, tens of thousands of people streamed unimpeded between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
African American history is not absent from the Mall. Last Friday, Coretta Scott King and other civil rights leaders dedicated a new inscription marking the spot on the Lincoln Memorial steps where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 – a commemoration that the coalition publicly supported. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is planned for a 4-acre site at the Tidal Basin – on the Mall – and will commemorate, as its sponsors state, “the man, the movement, and the message.”
We are short-sighted, however, if we believe monuments and museums to our individual ethnic or group identities can keep American culture and ideals alive and healthy. In 1791, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, working with Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant, envisioned the Mall as “public walks,” a place where citizens and elected leaders could meet and engage in cultural activities in the shadow of the symbols of the new republic. Civil rights leaders accepted that vision and transformed the Lincoln Memorial and the entire Mall into a living monument to civil rights and freedom. The Mall’s core ideals and symbolic spaces didn’t change; the people gave it new, fuller expression. Instead of filling it with monuments to ourselves, we should honor and protect its symbolic and special simplicity as a touchstone to the past and a political ideal for the future.
That’s the beauty of the Mall. So long as the founding principles remain the ones we choose to share as a people and a nation, the Mall can live and grow as we seek to attain the lofty goals of our Founding Fathers.
Are there other ways to think about the African-American Museum that give it the primacy it requires in telling the American story? We believe there are. We believe there are additional, alternative sites to the five originally studied in the Preferred Site Analysis Report.
Our testimony before Congress included mention of a potential six-acre site, identified by the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, midway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Kennedy Center, with views toward the Potomac and down Constitution Avenue. That site will become available in just a few years, as the city and the federal government undertake major renovations at the Kennedy Center. The new urban centerpiece around the Kennedy Center will become a major draw for tourism, business and new museums. Is that a “back door” site? Hidden? Does anyone believe the Kennedy Center – originally intended for L’Enfant Plaza and then moved to a seemingly out-of-the-way site in Foggy Bottom – lacks prominence?
A location off the Mall would allow greater freedom of architectural design, with an opportunity to do an important iconic building as the sponsors desire that would not be possible on the Mall.
Many commentators lament the lack of social cohesion in American life, a loss of historical memory and the lack of understanding of founding principles. The National Mall should be – and was intended to be – an antidote to that malaise, an exhilarating work of art celebrating the people, ideals, hopes and the goals we share as a nation. Everyone belongs there, but in person, not in stone.
JUDY SCOTT FELDMAN
National Coalition to Save Our Mall
[Note that the original letter submitted was signed by both Charles I. Cassell, AIA, and Judy Scott Feldman, Ph.D.]