Thursday, September 11, 2014

In 1880, the National Mall did not exist west of the Washington Monument or south of Constitution Avenue -- it was all water. West Potomac Park, the Tidal Basion, East Potomac Park -- all water. Beginning in 1881, Congress appropriated funds to have the Potomac River dredged to bedrock as a flood-reduction measure. They used the earth to expand the National Mall, and ensure that the whole area was at least six feet above the high-water mark.

By 1900, with the National Mall finally reclaimed from the waters of the Potomac, there were a host of plans with what to do with it. Some called for industrial parks. Others called for public bathhouses and bathing beaches (since so few in the city, e.g., blacks, had running water). Others wanted it sold off for development. Still others wanted parks.

In 1901, the U.S. Senate established the Senate Parks Commission to decide what to do. Led by Senator James McMillan (R-Mich.), the "McMillan Plan" laid out the National Mall as we know it today. The vast forest and winding footpaths were torn out, and double-rows of trees laid on either side. Down the center was a vast "tapis verdt" (green lawn), just like at Versailles. At one end, a new "Lincoln Memorial" with reflecting pool would be built. In front of the Congress, a new "Ulysses S. Grant Memorial" would go up. The shape of the Tidal Basin would be altered, there would be a bridge linking the "Lincoln Memorial" with Arlington National Cemetery, the train station on the Mall would be gotten rid of and a new one (a "Union" Station, for all railroads) built north of the Capitol. Museums, art galleries, theaters, and auditoriums would line the National Mall.

And east of the Capitol, the townhouses and odd buildings would be condemned using eminent domain. East Capitol Street would be widened into a six-lane ceremonial avenue (two lanes for parking, the rest for traffic). New, Beaux Arts and Neoclassical federal office buildings would line the street. Most north-south through-streets would be cut off by these new buildings. Sunken trenches north and south of this "Eastern Mall" would hold a limited-access highway, allowing quick access to the new parkways that would be built -- one extending north on the western shore of the Anacostia River, and one zipping southwest across a new Massachusetts Avenue Bridge that would, finally, like the two segments of the great state's ceremonial thoroughfare.

Lincoln Park would be turned into a fantasy land of a park. And at the easternmost end of the great avenue would be another train station, a new city university, a great city hospital, and a gigantic sports arena. On the shores of the Anacostia would be a new, vast park -- beautiful like no other, with gigantic meadows, winding pathways, copses of trees, playgrounds, boating, picnic sites, athletic fields, and a gigantic natural (if man-made) amphitheater...and on the weekends, in summer, an orchestra would play music, accompanied by fireworks, and the people sitting on the grass would applaud and thrill to their fantastic city and its urban wonders.

Well, nothing happened on the east side. But that was the plan. Even as late as 1941 -- when the plan was put on the shelf due to the emergency of World War II -- there were plans to implement this grand scheme to transform the eastern half of Washington, D.C., into a spectacular vista of magnificent buildings, parks, avenues, and public conveniences.

But when the war ended, there wasn't any money for it. And then Korea happened. And then the Cold War. And then Vietnam. And then the plan just was put aside, forgotten, cast away.

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