February 17, 2009
If you live in Washington, D.C., chances are a tourist, standing smack dab in the middle of the National Mall, has asked you where the big mall is, as in shopping. “You know,” they’ll say, “the one with the famous pool?” But as DCist snidely pointed out after the inauguration, the National Mall comes sans piercing pagoda.
So let’s get it straight, the National Mall is a lovely park-like greensward, and around its edges are many of the Smithsonian’s museums, but the actual definition of the Mall has become a talking point as of late.
Survey most Washingtonians and they will tell you that the National Mall is the two mile park from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, bounded on the north and south by Constitution and Independence Avenues.
In the past, however, others have called it the cross formed by the east-west axis from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial intersecting the north-south axis from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial. But ask the National Park Service, which maintains the green space, and you’ll get yet another definition. The NPS parcels it up into the National Mall and Memorial Parks.
The National Mall runs from the Grant Monument at First Street west to 14th Street. Then the area between 14th and 17th Streets is known as the Washington Monument grounds. Seventeenth Street west to the Potomac River and including the World War II, Lincoln, Vietnam, Korea, FDR and Jefferson memorials is West Potomac Park. The area around Hains Point is East Potomac Park. As you can see, it’s complicated.
“Conflicting definitions are both a symptom and a cause of the Mall’s problems,” writes Judy Scott Feldman, an art historian who heads the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, in The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core. “The Mall’s physical definition is inextricably tied to its evolving function.”
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.