The Washington Monument is the defining feature of the Washington, D.C., skyline and the centerpiece of the nation’s most symbolic public open space. But at ground level the vast expanse surrounding the obelisk remains, remarkably, unfinished. Seeing this as an opportunity to elicit thoughtful, visionary ideas, a consortium of Washington area educational and nonprofit groups has organized a competition. The purpose of this competition is to heighten public interest in the role of the Washington Monument grounds, and the larger National Mall, in the civic life of our democracy; to generate public discussion of George Washington and the Revolutionary War era as part of the American story; and to develop ideas for planning public use of the grounds suited to the future, long-term needs of the American people in the 21st century.

The L’Enfant Plan of 1791 and McMillan Plan of 1901-1902 gave pride of place on the National Mall to George Washington and his monument. But those concepts have never been realized. For L’Enfant, (1), the Monument was to honor the “Commander in Chief of the Armies of the United States during the war which vindicated and secured their liberty, sovereignty, and independence.” He intended it to anchor the great promenade at the intersection of the two symbolic axes set by the Capitol and the White House. The McMillan Commission Plan (2 and 3) envisioned the Monument grounds to be the centerpiece of the expanded Mall and the “gem of the Mall system.” The formal, lush garden would be a fitting setting for the obelisk “so great and so simple that it seems to be almost a work of nature.” In the 1930s, Congress abandoned the McMillan design concept, and in 2003, Congress declared the National Mall a completed work of art. Today, the grounds are a void at the center of the Mall’s cross axis (4 and 5). The Monument stands mute without the accompanying narrative about our nation’s genesis. The only completed landscape features are the new oval-shaped security walls and walkways added in 2004.

Three active projects are being planned separately on the Monument grounds – the Army Corps of Engineers levee at 17th Street (4A), the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture (4B), and the National Park Service’s reconstruction of the Sylvan Theater (4C). These and future projects need to be informed by an overall plan for the grounds of the Washington Monument.

This competition is not intended to develop a final plan for the Monument grounds. At present, there is no consensus as to what role the Monument grounds should play in the life of the 21stst Century National Mall, or even if it should be developed further at all. This competition is intended to spur involvement in the future of the National Mall by all Americans who care about this central symbolic feature of our capital city and our nation’s public life.

The outcome of this competition envisions the placement of one or more demonstration projects on the grounds so that the public may experience how these ideas could transform the space and the role it plays in the life of the Mall. A well-illustrated collection of the ideas will be published to serve as a historical record as well as a means of building long-term public interest in the evolution of the National Mall.

The competition will be open to all. It is expected to attract a broad array of disciplines including designers, artists, critics, historians, architects, landscape architects, educators, and students.

Details about THE JURY and the competition’s FUNDING are forthcoming.


  • Summer 2010 – A SYMPOSIUM/WEBINAR will educate the public about the history of the National Mall and the Washington Monument grounds.
  • Fall/Winter 2011 – The FIRST STAGE will be structured to uncover a wide variety of different points of view. A simple submission format will focus on the idea rather than presentation. Winners will be given a stipend to continue to stage 2.
  • Spring 2011 – SECOND STAGE participants will be asked to refine and develop their conceptual ideas into preliminary designs for demonstration projects. Winner(s) will be given a stipend to continue to stage 3.
  • Summer 2011 – COMPLETION of the Competition will result in selection of demonstration projects for implementation and publication of competition ideas.

Ellen Goldstein, Executive Director, Washington Monument Grounds Ideas Competition, 202-253-5694