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History of Early American Landscape Design

National Mall

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The National Mall is a broad, tree-lined green in Washington, D.C. that extends from the foot of Capitol Hill to the Washington Monument. It is a public space used for recreational activities, cultural events, and democratic discourse. Museums and gardens flank the north and south sides. The U.S. Capitol building lies to the east and the monuments of West Potomac Park lie to the west. Both as a national icon and a civic space, the Mall is a key landmark of the nation’s capital.


Overview

Alternate Names: Public Grounds

Site Dates:

Site Owner(s):

Site Designer(s):

Location:
Washington, D.C.
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Related Sites: Smithsonian Institution, United States Capitol, Washington Monument

Related Terms: Arch, Avenue, Basin, Botanic garden, Bridge, Canal, Drive, Fountain, Greenhouse, Hothouse, Jet, Lake/Pond, Landscape gardening, Lawn, Mall, Modern style/Natural style, Park, Picturesque, Plantation, Pleasure ground/Public ground, Plot/Plat, Promenade, Square, Statue, View/Vista, Walk, Wall


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History

The origins of the National Mall can be traced to a preliminary plan for the city of Washington sketched by Thomas Jefferson in March 1791. Jefferson envisioned the Capitol building and the President’s House as opposite ends of a prominent east-west axis connected by “public walks.” <Stephenson, 1993, 17-19; see also 38-43> Over the next several months, Pierre Charles L’Enfant expanded on Jefferson’s idea in his official plan for the city. His ambitious design called for a “Grand Avenue, 400 feet in breadth, and about a mile in length” leading from “the Congress Garden” on Jenkins Hill (now Capitol Hill) to the “President’s park” and a “well-improved field” near the banks of the Potomac, which would be the site of a projected equestrian statue of George Washington. The view from that point back to the Capitol would feature a cascade falling from a height of forty feet down to a canal running alongside the Mall to the Potomac. L’Enfant conceived of the wide urban avenue as a social as well as a scenic space: a “place of general resort,” bordered by gardens and the stately residences of the city’s elite, as well as playhouses, assembly rooms, academies, “and all such sort of places as may be attractive to the l[e]arned and afford diver[s]ion to the idle.” <Lewis, 2008, 13-15; Scott, 2001, 39-40 and 55, n.20; <Caemmerer, 1950, 151-53, 157-59; 163-65>


Development of the Mall stalled over the next several decades while a variety of alternative plans were advanced by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (in 1815), Charles Bulfinch (in 1822), and Robert Mills (in 1831). <Scott, 1991, 46-50> Sections of the Mall were cultivated on a piecemeal basis; for example, in 1823 the Columbian Institute carried out improvements on five acres at the Mall’s east end, excavating two ponds, laying out gravel walks, and planting borders. <Scott, 1991, 46; O’Malley, 1996, 218-20>


In 1841, as part of his design for the building that would ultimately house the Smithsonian Institution, Robert Mills submitted a plan for laying out the Mall as a patchwork of gardens of contrasting styles, connected by a web of serpentine paths. The botanical emphasis of Mills’s design reflected the influence of contemporary English gardenesque design and was consistent with the long-held objective of locating a publicly accessible botanic garden in the nation’s capital—an idea first broached in the 1790s by influential advocates including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. <O’Malley, 1996, 213-26; Scott, 1991, 48-49>


Botanical interests also informed the landscape plan designed in 1851 by the architect and horticulturalist Andrew Jackson Downing, who conceived of the Mall as “a national park” and a “public museum of living trees and shrubs” that would both influence taste by providing an example of the natural style of landscape gardening (illustrated by a sequence of contrasting landscape “scenes”), and educate visitors to the popular and scientific names, habits, and growth of botanical specimens suited to Washington’s climate. <Schlereth, 2007, 211-13; Savage, 2005, 70-73; O’Malley, 1991, 65-72> Rather than carry out Downing’s plan systematically, individual federal agencies developed portions of the Mall on an ad hoc basis, creating a loosely connected network of meandering walks, gardens, and groves. <Savage, 2005, 75; Streatfield, 1991, 117-18; O’Malley, 1991, 72>


Under the McMillan Plan of 1902, the existing landscape was cleared and leveled in order to create a more unified, open space with unobstructed vistas in keeping with the spirit of L’Enfant’s original plan. Landscape and hardscape construction projects continue to re-shape the Mall and its surroundings into the 21st century. <Penczer, 2007, 21-121; Kohler and Scott, 2006, passim; Savage, 2005, 147-313; O’Malley, 2002, ix-xii>


--Robyn Asleson


Images

Texts

  • Anonymous, 2 January 1808, describing in the Washington Expositor the national Mall, Washington, D.C. (quoted in O’Malley 1989: 99–100) [1]
“At present these large appropriations afford an increase to the pasturage of the city, more beneficial to the poor citizens, than their culture in the ordinary courses. . . . by laying off those in their occupancy so as to afford ample walks open at seasonable hours and under proper regulations to the public, it will give to the city, much earlier than there is otherwise reasonable cause to hope for, agreeable promenades, as conducive to the health of the inhabitants, as to the beauty of the places.”


“That, with a view to promote the public good, and to ornament and improve the public grounds, they would recommend that the water of Tiber Creek be brought to the Capitol Square; and, after forming a reservoir, be carried in pipes to the Botanic Garden, and thrown up in a jet d’eau of 30 or 40 feet high, and then be used in watering the surrounding grounds. That a wall five feet high, with a stone coping, be put round the ground appropriated for a Botanic Garden; and that suitable buildings be erected, and the Garden be properly laid out, and cultivated as a National Garden; to effect which important national objects, a sum not exceeding 30,000 dollars will be required.”


  • Commissioner of Public Buildings, 9 June 1827, describing the Columbian Institute, Washington, D.C. (quoted in O’Malley 1989: 133) [1]
“The new section of the Washington Canal was laid out along a line drawn through the middle of the Capitol and of the Mall. The pathway, canal and plantation in the garden do not coincide with this line, but diverge from it at an acute angle.”


  • Bulfinch, Charles, 21 January 1829, proposal to the House Committee on Public Buildings regarding the national Mall, Washington, D.C. (quoted in Rathburn 1917: 49) [2]
“The Capitol being now finished with the exception of these particular objects, I beg leave to suggest that the public grounds immediately adjacent should conform in some degree to the importance and high finish of the building.”


“Three spacious avenues (of the city) center within these grounds, which at some future day when improved will form three interesting vistas.”
Fig. 1, Robert Mills, "Plan of the Mall," 1841.


  • Mills, Robert, 23? February 1841, in a letter to Joel R. Poinsett, describing his design for the national Mall, Washington, D.C. (Scott, ed., 1990: n.p.) [3]
“Agreeably to your requisition to prepare a plan of improvement to that part of the Mall lying between 7th and 12th Street West for a botanic garden . . . I have the honor to submit the following Report. . . .
"Drawing No. 1 presents a general plan of the entire Mall, including that annexed to the President's house, with the particular improvement proposed of that part intended for the Institution and its objects....[Fig. 1]
"The relative position of the Capitol, President's House, and other public buildings are laid down, as also the position of the proposed buildings for the Institution; the adjacent streets and avenues are also shown, with the line of the Canal which courses through the City, at the foot of the Capitol hill to the Eastern Branch near the Navy Yard, thus making of the south western section, a complete island....
“The principle upon which this plan is founded is two fold, one is to provide suitable space for a Botanic garden, the other to provide locations for subjects allied to agriculture, the propagation of useful and ornamental trees native and foreign, the provision of sites for the erection of suitable buildings to accommodate the various subjects to be lectured on and taught in the Institution. . . .
“The Botanic garden is laid out in the centre fronting and opening to the south. On each side of this the grounds are laid out in serpentine walks and in picturesque divisions forming plats for grouping the various trees to be introduced and creating shady walks for those visiting the establishments. . . .
"A range of trees is proposed to surround three sides of the square which is intended to be laid open by an iron or other railing, the north side to be enclosed with a high brick wall to serve as a shelter and to secure the various hot houses and other buildings of inferior character."
“The main building for the Institution is located about 300 feet south of the wall fronting the Botanic garden, from which it is separated by a circular road, in the centre of which is a fountain of water from the basin of which pipes are led underground thro’ the walks of the garden, for irrigating the same at pleasure, the fountains may be supplied from the canal flowing near the north wall of inclosure....
"By means of Groups and vistas of trees, picturesque views may be obtained of the various buildings and other such objects as may be of a monumental character and thus there would be an attraction produced which would draw many of our citizens and strangers to partake of the pleasure of promenading here."


  • Mudd, Ignatius, 1849, describing the grounds of the United States Capitol and the reconstruction of the national Mall, Washington, D.C. (U.S. Congress, 31st Congress, 1st Session, doc. 30)
“A disposition on the part of Congress to make the public grounds what they were originally designed to be. . . . An ornament and attraction to the capital of the nation.”


  • Downing, A. J., December, 1851, “State and Prosperity of Horticulture” (Horticulturist 6: 540–41)
“The plan [for a public ground in Washington] embraces four or five miles of carriage-drivewalks for pedestrians—ponds of water, fountains and statuespicturesque groupings of trees and shrubs, and a complete collection of all the trees that belong to North America. It will, if carried out as it has been undertaken, undoubtedly give a great impetus to the popular taste in landscape-gardening and the culture of ornamental trees; and as the climate of Washington is one peculiarly adapted to this purpose—this national park may be made a sylvan museum such as it would be difficult to equal in beauty and variety in any part of the world.”


Fig. 2, A. J. Downing, N. Michler (copied by), "Plan Showing Proposed Method of Laying Out the Public Grounds at Washington." Manuscript copy of Andrew Jackson Downing's plan for the Mall of 1851, 1867.
“My object in this Plan has been three-fold:
“1st: To form a national Park, which should be an ornament to the Capital of the United States; 2nd: To give an example of the natural style of Landscape Gardening which may have an influence on the general taste of the Country. . . .[Fig. 2]
“The Public Grounds now to be improved I have arranged so as to form six different and distinct scenes: viz.
"1st: The President's Park or Parade.
“This comprises the open Ground directly south of the President’s House. Adopting suggestions made me at Washington I propose to keep the large area of this ground open, as a place for parade or military reviews, as well as public festivities or celebrations. A circular carriage drive 40 feet wide and nearly a mile long shaded by an avenue of Elms, surrounds the Parade, while a series of foot-paths, 10 feet wide, winding through thickets of trees and shrubs, forms the boundary to this park, and would make an agreeable shaded promenade for pedestrians.
“I propose to take down the present small stone gates to the President’s Grounds, and place at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue a large and handsome Archway of marble, which shall not only form the main entrance from the City to the whole of the proposed new Grounds, but shall also be one of the principal Architectural ornaments of the city; inside of this arch-way is a semicircle with three gates commanding three carriage roads. Two of these lead into the Parade or President’s Park, the third is a private carriage-drive into the President’s grounds; this gate should be protected by a Porter’s lodge, and should only be open on reception days, thus making the President’s grounds on this side of the house quite private at all other times. . . .
“2nd: Monument Park.
“This comprises the fine plot of ground surrounding the Washington monument and bordered by the Potomac. To reach it from the President’s Park I propose to cross the canal by a wire suspension bridge, sufficiently strong for carriages, which would permit vessels of moderate size to pass under it, and would be an ornamental feature in the grounds. I propose to plant Monument Park wholly with American trees, of large growth, disposed in open groups, so as to al[l]ow of fine vistas of the Potomac river. . . .
“4th: Smithsonian Park or Pleasure Grounds.
“An arrangement of choice trees in the natural style, the plots near the Institution would be thickly planted with the rarest trees and shrubs, to give greater seclusion and beauty to its immediate precincts.
“5th: Fountain Park.
"This Park would be chiefly remarkable for its water features. The Fountain would be supplied from a basin in the Capitol. The pond or lake might either be formed from the overflow of this fountain, or from a filtering drain from the canal. The earth that would be excavated to form this pond is needed to fill up low places now existing in this portion of the grounds.
“6th: The Botanic Garden.
“This is the spot already selected for this purpose and containing three green-houses. It will probably at some future time, be filled with a collection of hardy plants. I have only shown how the carriage-drive should pass through it (Crossing the canal again here) and making the exit by a large gateway opposite the middle gate of the Capitol Grounds. . . .
“The pleasing natural undulations of surface, where they occur, I propose to retain, instead of expending money in reducing them to a level. The surface of the Parks, generally, should be kept in grass or lawn, and mown by the mowing machine used in England, by which, with a man and horse, the labor of six men can be done in one day. . . .
“A national Park like this, laid out and planted in a thorough manner, would exercise as much influence on the public taste as Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston, has done. Though only twenty years have elapsed since that spot was laid out, the lesson there taught has been so largely influential that at the present moment the United States, while they have no public parks, are acknowledged to possess the finest rural cemeteries in the world. The Public Grounds at Washington treated in the manner I have here suggested, would undoubtedly become a Public School of Instruction in every thing that relates to the tasteful arrangement of parks and grounds, and the growth and culture of trees, while they would serve, more than anything else that could be devised, to embellish and give interest to the Capital. The straight lines and broad Avenues of the streets of Washington would be pleasantly relieved and contrasted by the beauty of curved lines and natural groups of trees in the various parks. By its numerous public buildings and broad Avenues, Washington will one day command the attention of every stranger, and if its un-improved public grounds are tastefully improved they will form the most perfect background or setting to the City, concealing many of its defects and heightening all its beauties.”

References

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 O’Malley, Therese. 1989. “Art and Science in American Landscape Architecture: The National Mall, Washington, D.C., 1791-1852." Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania. view on Zotero
  2. Rathburn, Richard. 1917. “The Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences.” United States National Museum’s Bulletin 101: 45–46. view on Zotero
  3. 3.0 3.1 Scott, Pamela, ed. 1990. The Papers of Robert Mills. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources. view on Zotero
  4. Washburn, Wilcomb E. 1967. “Vision of Life for the Mall.” AIA Journal 47, no. 3 (March): 52–59. view on Zotero

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