DC Explorer: National Mall

The National Mall is the heartbeat of Washington D.C.; the gathering space where people from around the world are invited to come together to celebrate the hope of freedom and work towards fulfilling the ideals of the American dream.

The Mall is a grand avenue welcoming visitors to DC. Origninally envisioned in 1791 by French-American Engineer Pierre L’Enfant – the mall a stretch of verdant pedestrian greenspace in the heart of the bustling city, The Mall stretches over two miles from Capitol Hill to the Potomac River and The White House.

It is home to a majority of The Smithsonian Museums, The National Gallery of Art, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Botanical Gardens… and so much more…over 25 million people visit The Mall each year to:

  • Relax and enjoy recreation: Over two miles of open parkland perfect for a picnic, afternoon walk or jog
  • Explore and Learn at The Smithsonian, National Gallery and other nearby museums
  • Pay respects to those who have sacrificed for the nation at the 65 monuments and memorials in or adjacent to the National Mall
  • Celebrate – The National Mall is home to countless celebrations and events from The Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival (March-April), Fourth of July to Presidental Inaugurations
  • Raise their voice…The Mall has become the ‘marching spot’ for Americans to raise their voice for actions from equal rights to poverty elimination and beyond. One of the most famous marches – The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom occurred on August 28th, 1963 – when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech to over 250,000 from The Lincoln Memorial

Planning your trip:

  • One thing I love about D.C. is that the majority of the National Museums and points of interest are within walking distance (or a short metro ride) of The Mall.
    • Don’t let the convenience fool you – The National Mall is huge – and it is important to plan and prioritze what you want to see and be mindful of time. That being said, you can see most, if not all the major Mall hotspots within a few days. I’ll include a few itinerary ideas in upcoming blog posts. For the latest posts – subscribe or follow American Nomad on facebook.
  • Getting there:
    • Take the train – If you have access to an Amtrak Route – I recommend that you enjoy a train ride into DC and take The Metro to The Mall. While driving in DC is not as perilous as some big cities – you are not going to be needing your car to get around. On my last trip, I drove from Raleigh to DC and my car stayed in the garage for four days straight.
    • Fly
    • Drive – On my last trip to DC I drove to The Mall because I planned on touring Colonial Williamsburg on the way back home. Parking is available around The Mall and price varies depending on which lot you choose.
    • Click here for helpful tips from The NPS including hours, parking and more…
  • Where to stay? There are tons of great hotels in DC, but I personally like The Holiday Inn – National Mall. It is only two blocks from the National Air and Space Museum. The room rates were very affordable at Christmas time. They have two restaurants on site. Holiday Inn website – DC
  • What to do?
    • The National Mall offers adventures for any traveler, while we’ll delve into highlights in subsequent posts, here is a list of a few must sees.
    • 1. The Smithsonian – The Smithsonian is HUGE with over nineteen museums (mostly lining The Mall) – I recommend selecting one or two museums of interest so you can have time to really enjoy the unique experience those museums have to offer. Admission is free, but you may needed timed (free ticket) entry. Check The Smithsonian website for updates.
    • 2. The National Gallery of Art: From Leonardo da Vinci to Monet to Picasso, this extraordinary museum offers something for every art lover. It is one of the largest art collections in the world and will take a full day to see all the wings. Admission is free
    • 3. Lincoln Memorial
    • 4. Washington Monument
    • 5. War Memorials – from The Civil War to present day – our nation has endured and thrived because of the sacrifices of many brave men and women.
    • 6. MLK Memorial
    • 7. National Archives – a stones throw from The Mall, behind The National Gallery, The National Archives is home to The Declaration of Independence and other important documents in our nation’s history. Free admission, but I recommend reserving timed entry online to avoid long lines.

Mall History:

When July 16, 1790, Congress declared the city of Washington in the District of Columbia, the permanent capital of the United States, a city needed to be born. At the time, the D.C. area was marshy and aligned with The Potomac for trade.

While America was a new nation, the founders wanted to ensure that the capital would thrive for years to come. Surveyor, Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker, a free African-American Astromer from Baltimore laid out the boundaries of D.C. – a perfect square on a North-South-East-West grid. You can see the orignial city cornerstone at Jones Point near Old Town Alexandria today.

President George Washington recruited French-American Military Engineer, Pierre L’Enfant to design the blueprint for the Legislature Building and President’s House.

L’Enfant fought with the Continental Forces under the French Commander, Lafayette during The Revolutionary War. After being captured in Charleston, by the British, L’Enfant was freed in a prisoner exchange in 1780 – when he began to work side by side with then General Washington.

After the war, L’Enfant settled in New York, working as a civil engineer.

L’Enfant knew the US was destined for a greatness as a democracy and wanted to create a permanent city plan worthy of a the nascent republic.

Thomas Jefferson, who was Secretary of State at the time, was also involved in the early stages of planning and L’Enfant was provided with Jefferson’s modest plan for DC’s Legislative building and President’s House. Jefferson envisioned a small and compact area east of Georgetown near Foggy Bottom today. (I love Jefferson’s architectural innovations and it would be interested to see what DC would have looked like if his plan too shape…I think he would be satisfied with L’Enfant’s plan)

L’Enfant envisoned a grander plan, anticipating the future of America’s importance. He studied designs by architects and planners such as Christopher Wren (City Plan after the London fire of 1666) and Andre LeNotre (Gardens of Versailles – France) – he devised a city with the pomp necessary for a capital, but also with ample open gathering spaces for all people to come together. This idea of government and the people intertwined with open gardens and unlocked doors may seem commonplace now, but at the time it was ‘revolutionary.’

L’Enfant met with Washington at Sutter’s Fountain In in DC in March 1791. His plan was to carve out a ‘Grand Avenue’ from the Congress House to the President’s House. The Capitol was to be built on what was then known as Jenkins Hill, and the open park area and gridded streets going all the way to The President’s House at the edge of The Potomac.

In addition to the assignment (plan for Legislature and President’s House), L’Enfant provided an entire city grid, which helped inspire the foundation for the D.C. we see today.

While L’Enfant’s original vision continued to be a beacon for D.C. – his plans were not close to being realized until the early 1900s. Building a nation is hard, and creating a capital city takes time and compromise.

Disagreements among early officials led L’Enfant from being dismissed from the project in 1792, but his vision left its mark on Washington. When Andrew Ellicott took over the project he is believed to have drawn influence from L’Enfant’s plans.

The National Mall we see today began to take its current shape in the early 1900s.

In 1902, Congress worked to beautify D.C.; The McMillan Commission (named after chair Sen. James McMillian of Michigan), called for a redesign of The Mall in the vein of L’Enfant’s original plan. The area’s Victorian buildings would be razed to create a 300 feet wide “grand avenue” vista containing a long and broad expanse of grass.

Four rows of American elms were planted fifty feet apart on either side of the vista.

While slightly different than L’Enfant’s original vision, today’s National Mall has the spirit of L’Enfant’s hope for America’s capital – a place to gather, and the trust and accountability of this democracy for the people and by the people.

To learn more check out The NPS National Mall website.

Fun facts:

  • Be prepared to walk:
    • The National Mall from Capitol Hill to The Lincoln Memorial is two miles.
    • Is home to 26 miles of pedestrian sidewalks and miles of biking trails
    • 365 steps at US Capitol Building
    • 87 steps at The Lincoln Memorial
  • Over 9,000 trees are located on the National Mall
    • 2,300 American elm trees help to frame the views between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol
    • The gorgeous Japanese Cherry Trees were given to the US in 1912 as a gift from Japan. They bloom in March-April. Learn more here.
  • The Smithsonian Castle was completed in 1855 – the first building in the Smithsonian Institute. It’s Gothic and Romanesque styles resemble a castle
  • The Smithsonian has twenty museums, including a zoo; Seventeen are located in DC and eleven of the seventeen museums are on The National Mall

We’ll continue our DC adventures, continuing to explore highlights of the National Mall, including The Washington Monument and beyond.

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Purpose of American Nomad: To share my love of travel, history and museums with others.

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