An Evolving Stage

A Public Forum and Stage for American Democracy

Public activity on the Mall
From top left: National Book Festival, Obama Inauguration, 1963 Martin Luther King, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The American people in modern times have given the Mall new meaning. They have taken ownership of the National Mall. Here, amidst the abundant and moving symbols of our founding ideals, We the People individually and collectively renew our sense of national identity of what it means to be an American. This is demonstrated every day as busloads of schoolchildren, families, and visitors from all over the world explore our history in the monuments and museums, take part in First Amendment events, join in civic celebrations such as the Fourth of July fireworks, and simply relax in the inspiring landscape. The public has transformed this symbolic landscape into an active and vital Stage for American Democracy. But the historic L’Enfant and McMillan Plans do not provide guidance to support modern purposes and needs.

Civil Rights took center stage during the March on Washington in 1963
The Lincoln Memorial was center stage for the Civil Rights Movement during the March on Washington in 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Today we are challenged to create a new visionary plan for the Mall that recognizes this evolving, active role in the life of the country and the capital. The historic plans did not anticipate this modern purpose. The 1791 L’Enfant Plan envisioned the Mall to be the cultural and political heart of the new seat of Government. More than a century later, at the turn of the 20th century, the McMillan Commission re-imagined the Mall as a majestic landscape symbol of America’s coming of age on the political and cultural world stage. A new plan for the Mall in its 3rd century can add into the equation a dynamic new element: the People for whom the Mall is a special place to explore, experience, and participate in American democracy.

Watch an illuminating history of the Mall, The National Mall: America’s Front Yard, broadcast on PBS and available online here.

Anti war protest 2003
In the 20th century, the Mall became a meaningful site for First Amendment gatherings and demonstrations
7th Graders Field Trip to Capitol
For 7th graders, the Mall is a civics lesson
Obama 2009 pre-inaugural event
The Lincoln Memorial provided a symbolic backdrop for a pre-inaugural event for our first African-American President