By Andrew Henderson

Doing a quick Google search of things you can do in D.C. provides thousands of results, but one of the first things to pop up is the National Mall. This long, grassy stretch is home to iconic monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

With the U.S. Capitol casting a shadow to the east and the White House dominating the north, there’s a lot going on at the National Mall. In fact, there are nine monuments and memorials on the National Mall, according to the National Park Service.

Many of them are likely the most well-known of the monuments and memorials in D.C. such as Lincoln and Washington and also the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

But, in D.C., who gets a monument and who doesn’t? And who makes those decisions?

What about the presidents?

As said before, just on the National Mall there are nine monuments and memorials.

  • Washington Monument
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • World War II Memorial
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
  • Korean War Veterans Memorial
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
  • DC War Memorial (World War I)

These monuments and memorial are some of the most well attended tourist stops for people visiting D.C. According to NPS, more than 25 million people visit the National Mall each year. Of the nine on the National Mall, seven hold spots in the top-10 most visited national landmarks in D.C., according to a 2015 Atlantic article.

Only four presidents have spots on the National Mall, which means a lot of others lost out on that prime real estate.

For example, the memorial honoring President James Buchanan is located roughly 3 miles from the National Mall and is a small bronze and granite statue situated in the Southeast corner of Meridian Hill Park. Of course, perhaps such a placement is appropriate for the president many consider to be the worst.

The James Buchanan Memorial is a bronze and granite memorial in the Southeast corner of Meridian Hill Park Northwest, Washington, D.C. Screenshot taken in Google Maps

According to a 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service, there are five memorials currently being designed and five others with site locations yet to be determined.

Of the five under design when the report was authored, a memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower was approved in early October, according to Dcist.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial carries a price tag of $150 million and will be built on the National Mall between the National Air and Space Museum and the Lyndon B. Johnson Building, DCist reported.

From DCist:

“The memorial will feature Eisenhower Square, an urban park with a memorial in the center, and bronze statues of Eisenhower at various phases of his life sprinkled throughout, alongside some of his famous quotes. There will also be a large transparent tapestry made of stainless steel cables, which was revised in this final design to preserve vistas to the nearby Johnson Building, where the Department of Education resides. While the tapestry once depicted Eisenhower’s Kansas hometown, it’ll now represent peace time in Normandy, France, representing his time as a military general in World War II.”

It took 17 years “of bickering among lawmakers, commissioners, planners and the Eisenhower family” before the memorial was given a green light to break ground, according to the Star-Tribune.

Awaiting authorization is a monument for President John Adams. First brought before the U.S. Congress in 2001, according to the Washington Post, the monument for Adams was given the shaft with changes made to the Commemorative Works Act. Since then, a monument for Adams has been continuously pushed back due to challenges for fundraising among other issues.

The latest news for a memorial came when Congress extended the authorization of the project to 2020, according to the 2016 monuments and memorials report, and the plan is to build the memorial as close to the National Mall as possible.

‘Historically haphazard’

Changes made to the Commemorative Works Act was a component in setting back a poential date for the John Adams Memorial, so what is it?

Congress was long responsible for authorizing memorials on federal land, the process for doing so, such as planning and funding, was “historically haphazard,”according to “Commemorative Works in the District of Columbia: Background and Practice.”

So, in 1986, in an effort to create a have a better established process for memorials in D.C., Congress passed the Commemorative Works Act.

Under the Act, a commemorative work is defined as “any statue, monument, sculpture, memorial, plaque, inscription, or other structure of landscape feature, including a garden or memorial grove, designed to perpetuate in a permanent manner the memory of an individual, group, event or other significant element of American history.”

Only Congress has the power to authorize memorials, but under the CWA there are several entities who are key stakeholders for memorials in D.C.

Of the five listed in the “Commemorative Works” report, the three which are a statutory part of the memorial process are the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission, U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission.

Each commission has its own criteria and place within the memorial process. For example, the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission, according to the “Commemorative Works” report, examines proposals for their adherence to the CWA, makes recommendations for memorials to Congressional members and committees, and provides information to people seeking to establish memorials.

Why so many at the National Mall?

The inside of the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Hunter Frint.

Pierre L’Enfant, a French engineer and architect, was tasked with designing D.C., including “spaces for the president’s house, the Capitol Building, and the grid of streets that would transport political leaders from one part of the city to another,” according to “Commemorative Works.”

L’Enfant’s design plan was to deemphasize any single part of the federal government, instead trying to interconnect D.C. by displaying it into segregated, distinct units.

In “The Washington Community,” political scientist James Young describes L’Enfant’s vision in creating D.C.

“There is no single center in the ground plan of the governmental community, no one focus of activity, no central place for the assembly of all its members. What catches the eye instead is a system of larger and lesser centers widely dispersed over the terrain, ‘seemingly connect,’ as L’Enfant put it, by shared routes of communication.”

The focus on the National Mall was again emphasized by the McMillan Plan, named after Sen. James McMillan.

The National Mall was the centerpiece of the McMillan Plan. Source: National Capital Planning Commission

While the plan drawn up by McMillan and his commission was never fully implemented by Congress, it laid the foundational work of emphasizing “various design features of the federal core including the National Mall, Federal Triangle, the area that is now the Lincoln Memorial, and the Ellipse,” according to the Commemorative Works report.

How much is too much?

After many years, there was some sentiment the National Mall was becoming overcrowded.

“We’re worried about the mall looking like Route One South,” Judy Scott Feldman, Chair of the National Coalition to Save our Mall, told CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver in 2007. “Essentially covered over, like a shopping mall from end to end.”

A 2001 report authored by the National Capital Planning Commission called for distributing new memorials and museums into all four D.C. quadrants in order to “protect the National Mall and existing commemorative settings” as the National Mall had become too “overcrowded.”

Congressional legislation in 2003 expanded the Reserve. No new memorials are permitted in the Reserve, and new memorials of preeminent historic and national significance may be permitted in Area 1.
Source: National Capital Planning Commission

Congress passed legislation based on the 2001 National Capital Planning Commission report in 2003 by approving an expanded Reserve area on the National Mall, designating the area as a no-build area. The reserve area covers the entire area of the National Mall, which is to say, as of right now, no one will be seeing any more monuments or memorials built on the Mall.

Want a monument in D.C.?

While nothing else can be built specifically on the National Mall that doesn’t mean the end of all monuments in D.C. After all, Eisenhower is still going to get one.

Not just everyone gets a memorial in D.C., but technically anyone could get one. All you have to do is follow an easy, 24-step program and you, too, could have a memorial.

The steps, published by the National Capital Memorial Commission, outline how someone goes about establishing a memorial.

Getting a sponsor in the House or Senate can prove difficult enough, but then you also have to consider how you’re going to fundraise the money.

So if anyone wants to start lobbying to get James Madison more of a proper memorial, you have a long road ahead of you.