If you’ve never been to the Virginia Center for Architecture, located in the Branch House at the corner of Davis and Monument, now you’ve got the perfect reason to go.
“Someday in the Park with George: The National Ideas Competition for the Washington Monument Grounds” is the new exhibit on display including historical drawings, pictures and information about how we ended up with the Washington Monument we know today.
But it’s not just musty old ideas for the monument. Last year a competition was held to solicit ideas for doing something with the grounds around it, something besides a ring of flags and security barricades, something that’s not barren and ugly.
Because the fact is, the Monument’s grounds were never finished, so they’ve been used for any number of inappropriate reasons in the past, including a beef depot (a photograph shows grazing cows everywhere) and from 1910-20, a military base. I’m no military expert, but placing a military base so close to a beloved target seems a tad foolish.
During World War II, the federal government erected temporary office buildings all along the Mall, including the monument grounds. Surprisingly, the last of these weren’t removed until 1970.
The array of design possibilities suggested over the years were far-reaching but none were ever completed. One had a circular colonnade with a triumphal arch leading into the monument for a very European look.
Another was for the grounds to have been used by the 1892 Colombian Exposition, but Washington, D.C. didn’t win the bid. The plan would have erected temporary fair buildings and man-made lakes on the grounds, inevitably making for a very different place now, had it been done.
The exhibit is also interesting for the more democratic of uses the Monument grounds have seen. There were photographs of people ice skating on the mall in the early decades of the 20th century and Tidal basin bathers sunning and swimming in 1922.
At one time, a proposal was made to construct two elevated roadways along either side of the mall to help alleviate Washington’s notorious traffic problems. It’s tough to even imagine a time when desecrating the mall for the sake of roads was an option.
The second room of the exhibit showcases the six finalists in the National Ideas Competition, which allowed anyone in the world over twelve years of age to submit ideas for the Monument grounds. Two of the wining six were not even Americans, which shows how compelling the notion of having a say in the monument’s outcome is to the global community.
One finalist suggested a Field of Stars with lights mounted in the ground; their brightness at night would be determined by how much foot traffic walked over them during the day. It was meant to be a metaphor for all of us having a say in democracy.
The one called the People’s Forum imagined stone steps and terraces surrounding the monument, making for a perfect performance space. Another envisioned a glass-topped sky-lit museum surrounding the monument.
Several of the finalists’ visions included tree-scaped grounds to offer shade to visitors, sorely lacking in the present plan which becomes miserable in the hot sun of a Washington summer.
The exhibit explains that at the time the monument opened, it had the highest passenger elevator and observation deck in the world. Back then, people described the feeling of riding it as scary and like ascending to heaven.
Whether you’ve been to the top of the Washington monument or not, the exhibit offers a compelling look at how our vision for the space around it has been an ongoing concern for over a hundred years. And now, with 21st-century input about how it might finally be improved in a manner that could take us into the 22nd century, it’s a show full of imagination.
The exhibit runs through June 24th and the Virginia Center for Architecture is open Tuesday through Friday 10am-5pm and weekends 1pm-5pm.
Whether you like history, art, architecture or are just looking for something different (and free) to do, an afternoon at the VCA is bound to interest just about everybody on some level. If nothing else, seeing the magnificent interior of the 1919 Branch House is reason enough to come in off of Monument Avenue.
But chances are, the allure of George and his world-famous monument will win out before you leave.
Karen is Just your average Jackson Ward resident who thinks Richmond offers more than enough to keep you occupied and entertained. She smiles too much, talks way too much, is too into music, and shares her opinion whether it’s asked for or not on her blog “I Could Go On and On.”