CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Winter/Summer 2011

Book Reviews


The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core.

Edited by Nathan Glazer and Cynthia R. Field with a foreword by James F. Cooper. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008; 232 pp., hardcover, $37.00

The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core presents a comprehensive argument to preserve the Mall in its present configuration. The book’s three sections look at the Mall and the issues surrounding its continued development from the perspective of design evolution over time, its function as a public gathering place, and various contemporary proposed actions.

The morphing of the National Mall over time is an interesting and enlightening story. The first section of the book calls for an end to any more construction of monuments or buildings on the existing Mall. Each following section continues to support this position. Perhaps a more effective title for the book would have been “Leaving the Mall As It Is” or “Defending the Status Quo.”

Nathan Glazer captures the sense of American ownership of this public space in his introduction and it is repeated throughout the book. As he notes, “The Mall is both a living monument and a work in progress.” (pg. vii) As with all public spaces and properties in Washington, DC, access to the Mall symbolizes access to the government and democracy. However, in the second section of the book it is interesting that there are different approaches on how the Mall is perceived and utilized yet there is little reference to how the utilization of the space has evolved over time. There are few references to past building incursions such as the original Smithsonian building, Andrew Jackson Downing’s romantic landscapes of the 1850s, the establishment of the United States Botanic Garden, or the former Baltimore and Ohio train station that used to grace the Eastern end of the space until the construction of Union Station in 1908. Also, the latest attempt to reify L’Enfant’s original vision, the McMillan Plan of 1901, is only briefly referenced. The spaces’ appropriation during wartime, whether during the Civil War, or the World Wars, is not referenced in any detail. More recent developments, such as the listing of the National Mall on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 and the additional documentation provided in 1981 do not occupy a central place in the discussion. Neither does the 2003 Commemorative Works Clarification and Revision Act that ended possibilities for any new development in the Mall axis.

The Mall’s evolution is discussed in the first section to some degree, but in the end the reader can’t be clear on exactly how people utilized or perceived this space during its first 100 years. This is a critical point only because today the American people feel that they “own” this ceremonial space—physical access to the Mall as democratic, public space is symbolic access to America. How they perceive it and use it has evolved as our society has evolved. Perhaps the real solution lies not in stopping present plans to further change the face of the existing Mall, but to double the Mall by extending to the east of the Capitol as Patricia Gallagher suggests. It is not hard to see that a new century demands even greater changes than we have had in the past. Continually adding buildings and monuments to the existing space is not possible.

While The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core is interesting and gives the reader great insight into the Mall we experience today, the real heart of the book is in the final chapters that show us how it can evolve in this new century.

Future designs for the Mall may not be in keeping with the monuments designed in a traditional style, but if given the same opportunities for evolution and growth that the original plan has had, the Mall will continue to be a central place of importance and meaning to all Americans for many generations to come. Glazer’s book attempts to document its past and consider it future. It is worth reading if only to gain insight into why each of us feels some ownership in a place most of us seldom see or experience.

Barbara Becker
University of Texas Arlington