But to back up a bit... When Pierre L'Enfant laid out the city of Washington in 1791, he envisioned a massive diamond-like park smack in the center of the city. It was L'Enfant who chose Capitol Hill (originally called "Jenkins Hill" and "New Troy") as the site for the Congress, and L'Enfant who envisioned Pennsylvania Avenue as not only a connector between the White House and legislature but also as a major traffic thoroughfare which would form the hub of the new city.
At the time, of course, D.C. didn't look like D.C. Imagine how the city would look if everything below Constitution Avenue NW from the Potomac River to 17th Street NW didn't exist. Well, that's what the city was like in 1791. Imagine, too, that where Constitution Avenue NW is today, a big fat creek existed... one that stretched all the way back to "Jenkins Hill" and then made a sharp turn north toward the massive springs beneath Union Station where it originated. That's what the city was like in 1791. No Lincoln Memorial to sit on, no land for the Vietnam War or Korean War memorials to sit on, no land for Jefferson Memorial or FDR Memorial or West Potomac Park baseball fields or East Potomac Park golf course or anything.
L'Enfant's plan envisioned the Capitol as the center of the city. Pennsylvania Avenue connected to the White House, and L'Enfant envisioned New York Avenue extending southwest toward the riverbank. (Currently, it dead-ends near the northeast corner of the White House.) L'Enfant envisioned Maryland Avenue extending from the Congress southwest toward the riverbank, too. (Today, it is chopped off by a park in front of the super-ugly Department of Education building, and by railroad tracks beyond that.) L'Enfant envisioned a big park south of the White House, which connected with a vast lawn stretching from the Capitol all the way west to the river. Down the center of this lawn would run a road.
That's how things stayed for 100 years. For the first 20 years or so, the National Mall wasn't even laid out. It was just dense deciduous forest which people used for firewood and logging. Not even paths ran down it. In 1815, Tiber Creek was straightened, the banks lined with rock and brick, and the Tiber turned into a canal (the idea being that the city needed extensive canals running all over the place to make the economy boom). That didn't turn out so well, because soon the canal was nothing more than an open sewer. The Mall, however, was pretty much cleared of trees and brush and stumps by the 1820s, and a couple gravel paths laid down. In 1830, when James Smithson's will bequeathed a "national museum" to the United States, interest in the National Mall suddenly blossomed. A federal commission hired Robert Mills to design the Smithsonian Institution's new building and grounds. Mills laid out a plan to have the Mall filled with examples of architecture from around the world. Okay, so that didn't pan out. But the National Mall was cleared, more paths laid out, and various kinds of plantings developed.
But it didn't help much that the National Mall held two major slave-pens. The Yellow House (or Williams Slave Pen) existed at 800 Independence Avenue SW, now the site of the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration. It was the most notorious slave pen in the capital: A modest, well-maintained, two-story yellow home concealed a very large basement in which slaves were chained to walls in windowless rooms, while a 30-square foot (2.8 m2) yard surrounded by a 12-foot (3.7 m) high brick wall provided space for the training and selling of slaves. Another large slave market, the Robey Slave Pen, was just a block away at the corner of 7th Street SW and Independence Avenue SW.
Events would help change the Mall anyway. Mills just so happened to also be the man who designed the Washington Monument. The monument committee had formed in 1833, but it wasn't until 1848 that Congress gave its approval for the monument to go on to any unused federal land in the city. Naturally, the monument committee chose the meeting place between the White House and Congress. Building of the monument began, but progress was slow and only a stump of an obelisk existed by 1860.
In 1851, President Millard Fillmore asked landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing to design a plan for the Mall. The fad at the time was the "English garden park" -- seemingly a "natural" forest, but in fact one carefully laid out with non-native plantings. Scattered throughout the park were "follies," carefully designed and placed "ancient ruins" (usually Greek or Roman Revival in nature) or "temples" or arbors... places where people could rest, get shade, and get a thrill. Downing thought that L'Enfant had the right idea: The Mall should be a showcase for things from around the world. But Downing proposed plants and trees, not buildings.
Sadly, Andrew Jackson Downing died in 1852, just as work was getting under way on his plan. But over the next 20 years, seven federal agencies each build a garden on the mall in an attempt to help bring Downing's plan to completion. The Tiber, too, became even more useless with the arrival of the railroads. In 1854, the B&O Railroad laid its tracks right across the National Mall at about 6th Street, and big honking Swiss chalet-style train station built where the National Gallery of Art is today.
During the Civil War, the National Mall was used to feed cattle and as a campground for troops. The unfinished Washington Monument became known as the "Washington Beef Depot." The mall was in such a state after the war that Congress demanded that the city do something about it. Congress appropriated funds to improve Tiber Creek, but they were not spent. Finally, fed up with sheep grazing on the Mall and the Tiber full of flies, Congress stripped the city of home rule and instituted a territorial form of government. The new Territorial Governor was Alexander Shepherd. Under Shepherd, the city built a horse-drawn streetcar system, installed street lights, and forced the railroad companies to widen their tracks so that freight from outside the city could come in without being unloaded and loaded again. Shepherd also started covering over Tiber Creek in 1871 (although this wouldn't get finished until the 1890s).
Okay, so Shepherd almost bankrupted the city doing this, and was Governor for only two years before Congress kicked him out. But Shepherd's improvements almost overnight turned D.C. from a muddy little town where people stayed for two or three months out of the year into a modern metropolis. After Shepherd, people began living here year-round. (No kidding.)
But the National Mall was still neglected. The Smithsonian's new zoo often grazed a herd of buffalo on it. But some changes were being made. The Department of Agriculture built its headquarters on the mall, and so did the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. The Arts and Industries Building was erected for the the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and a big market -- the Center Market -- built where the National Archives is today. Center Market was city-owned (which meant low prices and good hygiene), and contained the first mechanical freezing apparatus in the country. Nearly all the city's streetcards converged there, making the National Mall part of the city's daily life for the first time ever.
After a disastrous flood in 1889 covered most of Pennsylvania Avenue with about three feet of water, Congress did approve a plan to dredge the Potomac River down to bedrock (the idea being that this would lower the water level and the river could accommodate more runoff). But what would be done with the silt and soil dredged up? Build new land! And thus, the city of Washington took on the form you see today. The entire National Mall west of the Washington Monument is Potomac riverbottom. Where the FDR Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Tidal Basin, and the rest are: Dredged riverbottom. Indeed, much of this area is about six feet higher than Pennsylvania Avenue. That's because it is intended to serve as a barrier against the river. And, sure enough, no major floods have hit the city since...
By the 1890s, many people were becoming interested in the National Mall. By now, the National Mall was about half forest, with winding gravel paths through the trees and meadows. There were numerous proposals to do more with the mall, but Congress could not decide what to do.
In 1900, the U.S. Senate got tired of being besieged with proposals for the mall. It established the U.S. Senate Parks Commission, which was charged with looking at all the myriad proposals and coming up with a single, definitive plan for the city. Senator James McMillan, a Republican from Michigan, was put in charge. McMillan was given free reign to appoint the commission's members. They were the greatest architects, landscape architects, and artists of the day: Daniel Burnham, who had designed "the White City" (the 1892 Chicago World's Fair); Frederick Law Olmsted, builder of Central Park; Charles F. McKim, architect of most of the great buildings of Manhattan; and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, the William Tecumseh Sherman memorial in s Central Park, and the Adams Memorial ("Grief") in Rock Creek Cemetery. Better known as the "McMillan Commission," the Senate Park Commission spent most of the summer of 1900 touring Europe for ideas. Commission members early on wanted to stick to and complete L'Enfant's original 1791 plan for the city. But they also realized that L'Enfant's plan would need extending and modernization if it were to incorporate all the new land being built up by the seemingly endless dredging operations going on in the nearby Potomac River. Several of the commission members are also strongly influenced by the "City Beautiful" movement, an architectural and artistic theory that said the poor could be educated, uplifted, and made more democratic by viewing monumental architecture. (Yeah, I know: Baloney.)
In 1901, the Senate Park Commission issued its plan. Creating a mirror image of the L'Enfant plan in order to integrate the new land into the city's "monumental core," the "McMillan Plan" advocated extending New York Avenue southwest past the White House to link with a new memorial to be placed at the western end of the newly-built west mall. Another major memorial (this one honoring "America's inventors and statesmen") would be created to the south, with small "tidal basins" framing it on either side. Maryland Avenue would connect this new memorial to the Congress. A major new street (named for one of the great Western states which had come to prominence in the latter part of the 19th century; California, perhaps, or Oregon) would link the western memorial to the southern memorial. A vast complex of museums would line the north and south sides of the National Mall between the Capitol and Washington Monument, with a gigantic new complex of buildings (similar to the Palais du Louvre in Paris) would be built between the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue (helping to wipe out the notorious "Murder Bay" slum and brothel district). The Capitol, too, would be ringed by much-needed office buildings.
The McMillan Plan continues to drive the city's development to this very day. It is officially the policy of the United States government to finalize and complete the plan.
Much of the plan would, in fact, be built. That "western memorial" became the Lincoln Memorial, which began construction in 1912 and was finished in 1922. Dredging ended before the southern part of the mall could be completely filled in, so a massive "Tidal Basin" was left behind (instead of tiny reflecting pools). The "southern memorial" became the Jefferson Memorial, which began construction in 1941 and was finished in 1943. That great complex of buildings north of Constitution Avenue became Federal Triangle, which began construction in 1928 and ended in 1939. And today, the various museums of the Smithsonian Institution line the National Mall between the Congress and Washington Monument, just as the McMillan Commission intended. Center Market, the B&O Railroad Station, and those train tracks across the mall all were removed between 1908 and 1935.
But not everything came about. New York Avenue was not extended past the White House. Nor was any great avenue constructed to link the Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial. Maryland Avenue was amputated at 7th Street. No vast complex of office building rings the Capitol today. (Indeed, part of the deal to build Federal Triangle was that the U.S. Supreme Court should move out of its tiny courtroom and offices inside the Capitol and across the street to a new Supreme Court Building. This is exactly what happened.)
Some things almost didn't happen according to plan. During the planning of Federal Triangle, for example, several architects proposed putting federal office buildings on the mall. (One would have gone right where the National Gallery of Art is today.) But these efforts were successfully beaten back.
Some things went horribly wrong! When World War I broke out, the Department of War needed a vast amount of new office space. So great numbers of "tempos" -- temporary office buildings -- were built smack on the National Mall. The "tempos" were built with block-long facades facing Constitution Avenue. Four wings extended a block onto the mall. Three massive "tempo" buildings were built on the north side of the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
They were supposed to be torn down after the war, but they weren't. These eyesores -- made of flimsy wood, with no architectural beauty whatsoever, poor heating, no air conditioning, minimal water and sewer, no kitchens, and no interior walls (people worked from cubicles) -- stayed up. They stayed up right into World War II. In 1942, another two "tempos" were built on the north side of the mall, and five more on the south side. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, determined to have the "tempos" come down after the war, made these buildings even flimsier than the others! He also approved construction of the Pentagon on the site of the old Washington-Hoover Airport to build the space the Department of War claimed it needed. But still the "tempos" stayed up! The War Department claimed that, even with the world's largest office building, it had no room. (Roosevelt had the Potomac dredged some more, and new land created near Gravelly Point. The spanking new Washington National Airport was built on this land.)
In fact, those god-awful "tempos" stayed up until 1971. By that time, several more Smithsonian museums had been built along the mall. Where the "tempos" stood on the north side of the mall became a pond and English garden park known as Constitution Gardens. Begun in 1974 and completed in May 1976, Constitution Gardens was supposed to feature an outdoor amphitheater. But only the pond, footbridge, island, and paths were finished. (Most of the hills in the area were built out of sewage sludge from the city's waste treatment plant.)
The National Mall's first Master Plan was designed by the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1965. The master plan called for the closure of the mall's innermost roads (George Washington Drive and John Adams Drive) and turning them into pedestrian pathways. The plan also calls for a new reflecting pool in front of the Capitol, the demolition of the "tempos", and the construction of Constitution Gardens there. It was revised in 1976. In 1997, the National Capital Planning Commission issued the Legacy Plan, which was intended to ban the construction of additional memorials and monuments on the mall and expand the "monumental core" outward. In 2001, the "No Build" plan was introduced -- which keeps the cross-section of the National Mall south of the White House free from construction and memorials.
Here's a list of major events in the history of the National Mall:
- 1802 - Matthew Carey's map of the city names the area "The Mall"
- 1820 - Old U.S. Botanic Garden (site of the Capitol Reflecting Pool)
- 1855 - Smithsonian Institution Building
- 1855 - D.C. Armory (south side of the mall)
- 1878 - Peace Monument
- 1879 - Arts and Industries Building
- 1885 - Washington Monument is finished
- 1887 - James A. Garfield Monument
- 1897 - West Potomac Park and East Potomac Park open
- 1908 - Department of Agriculture
- 1910 - National Museum of Natural History
- 1912 - John Paul Jones Memorial
- 1912 - donation of Japanese cherry trees
- 1914 - Tidal Basin
- 1917 - Sylvan Theater
- 1920 - Ulysses S. Grant Memorial
- 1922 - Lincoln Memorial
- 1923 - Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool
- 1923 - Freer Gallery of Art
- 1926 - John Ericsson National Memorial
- 1931 - District of Columbia War Memorial
- 1933 - U.S. Botanic Garden (present site)
- 1937 - National Gallery of Art
- 1943 - Jefferson Memorial
- 1943 - Kurtz Bridge across the Tidal Basin opens
- 1964 - National Museum of American History
- 1964 - Rainbow Pool (current site of the WWII Memorial)
- 1964 - National Museum of African Art
- 1971 - Capitol Reflecting Pool
- 1974 - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- 1976 - National Air and Space Museum
- 1976 - Washington and Adams drives are closed
- 1978 - National Gallery of Art - East Building
- 1982 - Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- 1983 - Vietnam Women's Memorial
- 1987 - Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
- 1987 - The Three Soldiers Statue
- 1993 - U.S. Holocaust Museum opens
- 1995 - Korean War Veterans Memorial
- 1999 - National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
- 2002 - National World War II Memorial
- 2002 - George Mason Memorial
- 2004 - National Museum of the American Indian
- 2011 - Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
- 2015 - National Museum of African American History and Culture
- ? - Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial (approved but design controversy has halted all work)