Trust For National Mall Building Campaign To Revitalize Constitution Gardens

Kurt Repanshek

Constitution Gardens long has been a focal point of the National Mall, in Washington, D.C., but it also long has suffered from lack of proper maintenance. An ambitious campaign mounted by the Trust for the National Mall aims to revitalize the Gardens, though it won't happen overnight.
Covering 50 acres between the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the World War II Memorial, the green space with its 8-acre pond has suffered from millions and millions of feet and inadequate maintenance down through the years. In August 2013 as many as 1,000 bluegills in the pond died as a result of poor aeration in the water; the pond is not linked to any streams, and so is a closed system.
Under a plan being developed by the Trust for the National Mall and the National Park Service, that pond will be ripped out and redesigned in a sustainable way, according to Caroline Cunningham, the Trust's president. That work, and the revitalization of 30 other acres in Constitution Gardens, is the focus of a major fund-raising campaign launched by the Trust, one that received a $3 million commitment recently from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr., Foundation.
Exactly how much the project will cost in the end is hard to say at this point, Ms. Cunningham said Friday during a phone call.
“We don’t know the answer to that question yet because it’s not been fully designed. We have a concept. So we’re raising sort of two chunks of money. One that will cover a first phase of the project, and that will define all the design and engineering, and that will give us a specific number," she said. "Right now the range is about $140 million to $170 million. That’s a concept estimate.”
As envisioned, the work will include draining the pond and reworking its plumbing. Too, the project will rebuild the crumbling walkways that bend their way through Constitution Gardens.
Until the 1970s, the land on which the Gardens now sprawls was covered with Defense Department buildings dating to World War I. President Nixon ordered their removal and the creation of Constitution Gardens, which was dedicated in 1976 as part of the country's Bicentennial celebration.
But the years have worn on the landscape and left it weary. Not only does the pond need to be made over, but soils across the Gardens are spent and need to be revitalized. In 2010 the National Park Service came up with a master plan of sorts for revitalizing the entire National Mall area, and in January 2013 then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directed the agency to do a better job of caretaking there.
The Trust has been helping out, both in raising money and in coming up with designs for rehabilitation projects. In 2012 a national juried competition chose a design plan crafted by Rogers Marvel Architects & Peter Walker and Partners through which the Trust plans to see the landscape revitalized with a sustainable approach.
The design team improved the landscape through the creation of a pavilion on the east end of the Gardens to provide visitor services. The lake is recreated to be sustainable and to provide activities such as boating and ice skating. Another aspect of Walker & Marvel’s design is the restoration and relocation of the Lockkeeper’s House, the oldest building on the National Mall. The plan works to highlight the stunning views of the Washington Monument.
“When it was designed, it was designed for the Bicentennial in the 1970s. And it never had the funding when it was built," explained Ms. Cunningham. "They had actually designed a restaurant, but it never got built due to a lack of funding."
The redesign, details of which will be announced later this year, will not alter the space, but rather improve it, she said.
"The shape of the pond is going to be exactly the same, the gardens, there obviously are going to be improvements to the walkways," said Ms. Cunningham. "We’re respecting the historic nature of the design."
The $3 million donation from the Bechtel Foundation will help get the project under way. As one of the major projects included in the National Mall Plan, Constitution Gardens and the historic 178-year-old Lockkeeper’s House, the oldest remaining structure on the National Mall, will benefit directly from the Foundation’s gift.
Under the envisioned rehabilitation, Constitution Gardens will be a more accessible and ecologically sound landscape, according to the Trust. There will be a pavilion that will serve as a threshold to the lake and will frame the gardens with terraces.
“Our Foundation is proud to be a member of the Campaign for the National Mall Cabinet and pleased to be able to award a grant for the restoration of such an important national treasure,” said Lauren Dachs, president of the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. “We believe Constitution Gardens will be a model for sustainability and enrich the lives of those who come to understand and share the extraordinary view of the American democratic experience represented on the National Mall."