National Mall History

Landscape Symbol of American Democracy 

The history of the National Mall is a story of two brilliant plans that envisioned the Mall as a landscape symbol of American Democracy; of constant change and often neglect; and, in our own time, of the role of American citizens in shaping political and social change. The modern Mall is just the latest chapter in a long history that is in many ways as inspired, unpredictable, and regenerative as our ever-evolving democracy. 

Beginnings in the Visionary 1791 L’Enfant Plan

The idea and design for the Mall originated in the 1791 L’Enfant Plan for the nation’s capital. That Plan, together with the 1902 McMillan Plan that updated and enlarged L’Enfant’s vision, remains today the historical blueprint for the capital and its centerpiece, the National Mall. Explore these plans in greater detail in Resources.

L'Enfant Plan (Library of Congress)
1791 L’Enfant Plan for the City of Washington. Facsimile. Original is in the Library of Congress. The Mall (green) was the symbolic heart of the L’Enfant’s plan for the capital, connecting Capitol, Washington Monument, and President’s House. CLICK to enlarge

President George Washington in 1791 commissioned Peter (Pierre)* L’Enfant, a Frenchman and engineer who had served under Washington during the American Revolution, to draw up a plan for the new seat of government for the United States. L’Enfant laid out the capital as a geographical embodiment of the newly ratified U.S. Constitution. The Capitol Building would be located on the highest spot, Jenkins Hill. The President’s House would occupy another hill a mile away. The centerpiece of L’Enfant’s vision was the Mall (area in green) connecting the Capitol and White House with a monument to George Washington. Broad diagonal avenues laid over an orthogonal street grid would link the Capitol, President’s House, and other public buildings with public squares intended for public monuments throughout the city — today’s Dupont Circle, Farragut Square, Logan Circle.

In essence, the plan for Washington gave physical expression to the ordering principles of American democracy — as illustrated here. For this reason, L’Enfant’s Plan has been called a “Founding Document.”

In L’Enfant’s vision, the Mall was intended to be a lively democratic public space in the heart of the capital and the nation. It would comprise a 400-foot wide “Grand Avenue” extending from the Capitol (marked “L” on the plan) westward to the Washington Monument (“A”) near the banks of the Potomac River where it intersected the White House axis (marked “President’s House” in the plan). He described the Mall as a “place of general resort” and, echoing Thomas Jefferson, a “public walks”, a tree-lined promenade flanked by public buildings such as theaters, academies, and assembly halls (shown in red). Tiber Creek would be channeled into a canal along the northern boundary to where it emptied into the Potomac River.

*L’Enfant called himself “Peter” and not Pierre. See Kenneth R. Bowling, Peter Charles L’Enfant: Vision, Honor, and Male Friendship in the Early American Republic, 2002.

The visionary plan ignored in the 19th Century 

Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1851 plan

L’Enfant’s concept for the Mall was mostly ignored during the 19th century.

In 1850, at the request of President Millard Fillmore, prominent landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing devised a new plan for the Mall and White House grounds. His Victorian style plan envisioned five separate, heavily treed gardens with curvilinear paths, a sharp contrast to L’Enfant’s “Grand Avenue.” Portions of Downing’s gardens were realized, including the Smithsonian gardens, but after his untimely death in 1852 his plan was largely abandoned.

Instead, in 1860 the Mall was a chaotic jumble of shacks, industrial buildings, and unpaved roads; the canal was an open fetid sewer. The only permanent structure was the Smithsonian “Castle” whose turrets can be seen in the background of the photo at left below, near the partially completed stump of the Washington Monument at river’s edge.

Views of the Mall in the 1860s and in 1900 at right. Courtesy Library of Congress

By the end of the 19th century, as seen above at right, haphazard growth resulted in the Mall being covered with trees and gardens, a variety of public and industrial buildings, and the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station and railroad tracks. Notice the white puffs of smoke as a train crosses the Mall at the foot of Capitol Hill.

The Mall in 1892, Currier and Ives
This 1892 print illustrates the chaotic environment the McMillan Commission encountered. Note the location of the Washington Monument near the banks of the Potomac. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

A new visionary plan: The McMillan Commission Plan of 1901-1902

Recognizing the squalid state of the Mall, and prompted by the leadership of the American Institute of Architects, Senator James McMillan (D-MI) created the Senate Park Commission, also known as the McMillan Commission, to create a new plan. The Commission, headed by renowned Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, included architect Charles McKim, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and sculptor Augustus St.-Gaudens. Read their 1902 report to Congress here.

The original Potomac River shoreline is marked in blue.
The original Potomac River shoreline is shown in blue.

The Commission admired and revived L’Enfant’s original concept of the Mall as a broad and open vista. They borrowed ideas from the royal gardens of Europe they had visited in search of inspiration. Taking advantage of new landfill created by the Army Corps of Engineers’ dredging of the Potomac River, they extended the Mall westward one mile to the Lincoln Memorial and southward to what became the Jefferson Memorial.

The 1901-1902 McMillan Commission Plan
The kite-shaped McMillan Commission Plan included also areas north and south of the original Mall. The Federal Triangle north of the Mall to Pennsylvania Avenue would be home to new government buildings. New complexes of government buildings were planned around the White House and the Capitol
McMillan WATERCOLOR#1 copy
The McMillan Commission envisioned the Monument gardens as decorated with pools, fountains, and shade trees. This would be the “gem of the Mall system,” an oasis in the heart of the Mall and the capital.

The McMillan Commission Plan more than doubled the size of the Mall. Their vision for the Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument was for a continuous green open vista framed by rows of elms and white classical museum buildings. The Washington Monument, originally the western boundary of the Mall, became the centerpiece of the Mall symbolic cross-axis (where the Capitol to Lincoln Memorial axis intersects the White House to Jefferson Memorial axis) as illustrated at the top of this page..

The McMillan Commission’s siting of the Lincoln Memorial reinforced and added to the symbolism of the Mall, as described in 1911 by Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial:

“…the site in Potomac Park was the best one for a monument to Abraham Lincoln — we have at one end of the axis [of the Mall] a beautiful building which is a monument to the United States Government [the Capitol]. At the other end of the axis we have the possibility of a Memorial to the man who saved that Government [Lincoln] and between the two is a monument to its founder [Washington]. All three of these structures, stretching in one grand sweep from Capitol Hill to the Potomac river, will lend, one to the others, the associations and memories connected with each, and each will have its value increased by being on the one axis and having visual relation to the other.”

The McMillan Plan is the basis for the Mall today

The McMillan Plan took shape on the Mall, slowly in fits and starts, throughout the twentieth century. The nineteenth century trees were finally removed from the area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the 1930s. Temporary buildings erected during World War I and World War II to the north and south of the Reflecting Pool, and at the base of the Washington Monument, were finally taken down in the 1970s. The brilliance of the McMillan Commission planning vision was finally fully evident in the 1970s and 80s in the grand open spaces, majestic vistas, and symbolic cross axis — where the Capitol to Lincoln Memorial axis intersected the White House to Jefferson Memorial axis, with the Washington Monument at the center.

A view from the Washington MOnument in the 1940s shows the WWI and WWII temporary government buildings that filled the open space west of the Monument
This 1940s view shows the temporary government buildings cluttering the west Mall. Photo courtesy Library of Congress
In the 1920s, the Mall still was covered with trees, industrial smokestacks, and temporary structures that were only removed in the 1930s and later
In the 1920s, the museum area of the Mall still was covered with trees, industrial smokestacks, and temporary structures

Museums were added to the area between the Washington Monument and the Capitol throughout the 20th century, the latest being the National Museum of African American History and Culture opening in 2016.

National Museum of the American Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004

In the 1980s a new trend not envisioned in the McMillan Commission Plan began. New memorials to 20th century events were added to the landscape between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, transforming the way visitors experience the American story. This began with completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, followed by the Korean Veterans Memorial, the FDR Memorial, the WWII Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. These memorials have become new pilgrimage sites for a whole new generation of Americans.

The memorial to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dedicated in 1997

The Mall as Public Forum and Stage for American Democracy in the Twentieth Century

Equally significant, the Mall took on new purpose in the 20th century as the American public came to the Mall to explore and participate in American democracy. The Mall became our nation’s premier public forum — the Stage for American Democracy — and a modern expression of the L’Enfant concept of the Mall as the people’s place. It has grown in meaning as the people have made new history on its sacred ground.

Anti war protest 2003
The Mall hosts First Amendment events year-round
Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963
At the 1963 March on Washington Martin Luther King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

The monuments to American founding principles, and the open public spaces stretching between them, have provided the stage for innumerable public celebrations, civic gatherings, and demonstrations. As a result, the Lincoln Memorial today has multiple layers of meaning: it is associated also with civil rights, dating back to Marian Anderson’s concert in 1939, and including the March on Washington in 1963 and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Most recently, in 2009, the Lincoln Memorial served as the setting for inaugural celebrations for our first African American President, Barack Obama.

Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Where will new memorials go, to tell the unfolding American story? 

What is the Future?

The National Mall continues to inspire Americans and visitors from around the world with the beauty and symbolic power of its design, iconic monuments, and lively public open space. But challenges remain.

Where do we locate future museums and accommodate mega events such as the national Solar Decathlon? How can we solve serious problems of stormwater flooding that threaten our museums and cultural resources? What is the best way to solve longstanding problems including lack of convenient restrooms and food, parking for tour buses that clog city streets and pollute the air?

How the the Mall, which is cut off from the surrounding community, better be made part of the life of the city?  Certain areas of the Mall remain essentially unfinished, notably the desert-like Washington Monument grounds. What can we do to complete the visionary design concept to make the Mall truly a unified landscape and continuous pedestrian experience?

FLOOD - Lauren 1936 28294u
There is no comprehensive plan to deal with the devastating history of flooding such as occurred in the 1930s that threatens our iconic monuments, public buildings, and the integrity of the open space

These are some of the questions that the National Mall Coalition has worked to answer through consultation and collaboration with the public, members of Congress, and Mall managing agencies. We have proposed a forward-looking approach to what we call the “3rd Century Mall” and other innovative ideas.

For additional information, see also the informative graphic history of the evolution of the Mall published by The Washington Post.