The Mall

Benches and trees line a broad walkway, through a level turf area towards the Washington Monument.
Panorama of the Mall landscape, looking west towards the Washington Monument

NPS Photo / D. Weldon

The Mall landscape lies at the center of the federal city, clarifying the vista and therefore the symbolic relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government. First conceived in 1791 and modified in 1902, the Mall was a primary design intent of both the L'Enfant and the McMillan Plans.

The Mall appears as a simple yet monumental landscape, encompassing 135 acres in the center of Washington, DC. The National Park Service oversaw the implementation of the plan, mostly during the 1930s, with strong design support and legislative assistance from the National Capital Planning Commission. The 1930s plan followed the 1902 McMillan Plan, which sought to revive the conception set forth in the 1791 L’Enfant Plan. This initial plan called for a broad promenade lined by fine buildings and gardens that would form the center of the capital city’s cultural and social life.

The periods of historic significance are 1791 to 1792, the date of the L’Enfant Plan and its revision by Andrew Ellicott, and 1902 to 1975, extending from the date of the McMillan Plan to the year when the last tree panel on the Mall was planted following the removal of the last temporary military buildings in 1971.

The Mall was an important part of the L'Enfant Plan, the central area of the McMillan Plan, and the adaptation of the plan by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and other planners in the 1930s. Olmsted played a major role in the design of Washington for many years and helped to oversee the Mall's construction in 1932-36. The construction was authorized by Congress in March of 1929 and funded by the Public Works Administration.

Today, the Mall provides the setting for public events throughout the year, from political demonstrations to cultural celebrations.
The towers of the Smithsonian Castle rise beyond young trees and a field of flowers.
The slope from the Mall to the Smithsonian Castle is apparent in this 1860 image, showing newly planted trees and a field of flowers.

National Archives (in The Mall Cultural Landscape Inventory report)

The Mall Cultural Landscape

The landscape, view, and spatial organization of the Mall are all interdependent and reinforce each other. Central grass panels are flanked north and south by panels planted with four rows each of American elm trees, almost six hundred in all. A few dozen elms remain from an early planting in the 1920s, and some portion of the rest date from the major planting in 1935. Others are replacements planted since the 1930s. Many of these are cultivars of a disease-resistant elm from the 1930s planting. There are a few other cultivars or varieties as well, and several trees of other species.

Behind the lines of elms, imposing museum buildings designed in Victorian, Beaux-Arts classical, and modern styles line the Mall on the north and south. Two sculpture gardens are located at the north and south along the 8th Street cross axis, designated as an important element on the L’Enfant Plan. The landscape is overlaid with a grid of walks and cross walks.
View of the National Museum of American History following 13th Street, with elms arising in the foreground of the building on either side of the broad walkway leading to its doors.
The walkway that connects the National Museum of American History and the Department of Agriculture follows the route of 13th Street.

NPS Photo

Other features include small food service buildings and short sections of post-and-chain barriers. A few constructed areas interrupt the continuity of the lines of elms, but they do not detract from the monumental landscape. The Smithsonian Castle extends to within 300 feet of the Mall’s center line. The sunken sculpture garden of the Hirshhorn Museum also extends into a Mall tree panel, and has its own varied planting palette. An entrance to an underground Metro station is located in a tree panel between the Freer Gallery of Art and the Department of Agriculture building, and a small carousel is situated in the tree panel in front of the Arts and Industries building.
The tall, broad branches of a tall elm tree arch slightly over a walkway and an area of grass.
Jefferson Elm (Ulmus americana) is one of the original elm trees planted on the National Mall during the 1930s.

NPS Photo

The two former inner Mall drives, parallel to Madison and Jefferson Drives, have been converted into gravel walks. Single or paired gravel and concrete walks follow the routes of most cross-axial streets, except 11th Street. Fourth and 7th Streets are surface roads that cross the Mall, and 9th and 12th Streets are tunneled beneath it. All street curbs are granite.

Benches designed in a historic, standard National Capital Region style are placed along the outer edges of the east-west walks and the inner edges of the walks along Madison and Jefferson Drives. Light standards in a style designed specifically for the Mall in the 1930s are located between the benches along the inner Mall walks.

Quick Facts

  • Cultural Landscape Type: Designed
  • National Register Significance Level: National
  • National Register Significance Criteria: A,B,C
  • Periods of Significance: 1791-1792; 1902-1975

Last updated: May 23, 2019