The National Mall

Formally established as plan 1902

The visitor information desks at Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery have lists of questions to expect from visitors and how to best answer them.  Many are predictable and common to museums everywhere.  One that is unique to this area, however, is: “We heard there was a great Mall around here.  Where is it?”  The National Mall (more often just called “The Mall”) suffers a bit from an identity crisis not of its own making.  It is as close we can get to a literal place where America goes to represent itself to itself, and whose issues are ours.

Like the nation, the Mall is really as much an idea as an object, and the result of centuries of change.  The modern project for the Mall was decreed by a governmental commission, the MacMillan Commission of 1901-2, to unify into a single formal space what had been a haphazard, locally orchestrated series of spaces between the Capitol and Washington Monument.  The longer half of the current Mall, between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial (including the Tidal Basin), was only then coming into being, by strategic use of landfill and dredging the Potomac.  The plan created the land as much as vice-versa.

The uses of the land during the 19thcentury are a sort of catalog of the country and its possibilities, with carp ponds, unpaved roads and an open sewer at its center.  A railroad station also stood on the original Mall site, as well as military barracks.  Hardly least, it was also a site for brothels as well as a slave pen where slaves were openly traded.

When rechristened as National Mall, that is, when Nation (and thus national identity) was injected into the site, it grew only more portentous as a project.  Only from the start of the age of Reagan has it has become the traditional gathering site for presidential inaugurations.  Its now sacrosanct nature gives 4thof July and Veteran’s Day celebrations a certain official imprimatur, often sanctioning a demand to keep the tone “patriotic.”   At the same time, it has been the site of choice for innumerable demonstrations.  Perhaps the most dramatic contrast of these two functions are the crowds on successive days in 2016 between those celebrating Donald’s Trump’s inauguration and the, even greater, number of citizens subsequently protesting it

Yet perhaps the most dramatic event on the land, making visible the immense weight of representation that bears on the Mall, and Washington in general, is one much earlier. Among the longest continuing protests on the Mall was its role as center of the occupation in summer of 1932 by the “Bonus Army” consisting of more than 40,000 people: World War I veterans and their families demanding the payments to them promised by a former administration.  While the Bonus Army encampment was just one of many “Hoovervilles” that sprang up around the country during the Great Depression, and stretched far beyond the Mall in expanse, its particular fate on the theatrical space of the National Mall is striking.

The marchers had asked that Congress pay them immediately, due to the situation at the depth of the Depression.  Congress refused.  Instead, on the 28th of July, under the direction of President Hoover, two ambitious young military generals, named Patton and MacArthur, led a military force of 600 soldiers: infantry, cavalry, even a machine gun unit, to violently uproot the former military veterans.  It was a battle of Americans versus Americans, and indeed soldiers against soldiers, in the shadow of the Capitol.  Unarmed, the Bonus army was of course completely routed by the standing military.  Indeed, MacArthur did not stop at clearing the downtown Mall area but advanced toward the Anacostia river flats, which held further occupiers.  Public dismay at this spectacle was one reason Hoover lost to FDR in the election that fall.  When a contingent of the Bonus army returned the following summer, Eleanor Roosevelt came to welcome them.

This is hardly the only time the Mall has been a frame for popular concerns, one powerful enough to not just reflect but shape the course of history.  The quarter of a million people who filled the Mall on August 28, 1963, as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, seared an image into America as well, beneficiary also of extensive coverage of the emerging popular medium of television.

What will the Mall be in the future?  We will see. There are more ideas for new monuments than the space will hold, which certainly suggests a kind of closure to America as a society.  But just as important is the fate of real, analog space in the age of digital experience.