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The National Mall: Contents Under Pressure


America’s “front yard” faces massive maintenance and upgrade needs and some high-profile problems.

Over the past decade, the once-gleaming white marble dome of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial has taken on a decidedly undignified appearance. Creeping over the dome’s surface (as well as the monument’s signature columns and Greek-revival pediment) is a black substance known as biofilm, giving a grimy look to this monument to the third president.

Dealing with the biofilm is just one of the many pressing issues facing the National Mall, which is under the purview of the National Park Service. Often called “America’s Front Yard,” the Mall welcomes well over 30 million visitors a year, making it one of the most visited areas of the National Park System (as urban parks go, its popularity is matched only by New York City’s Central Park). More than two dozen buildings, monuments, and memorials line its nearly two-mile length, which begins west of the Capitol and extends to the Lincoln Memorial and south to include the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial. As a site of peace and protest, the Mall regularly hosts massive gatherings, such as Independence Day celebrations, presidential inaugurations, and, more recently, January’s Women’s March on Washington.

All this activity, in addition to the aging infrastructure, has led to major problems, from unaddressed maintenance to acute preservation needs. Collectively, the NPS has an estimated $11.3 billion maintenance backlog across its 417-unit system; a full $850 million of that is needed for the National Mall. For starters, the roofs of the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials need repairs. The seawall at the Jefferson Memorial has been collapsing for some time. The Washington Monument has been closed since last fall while its elevator system undergoes repairs (a closure that came only a few years after its last closure, to repair damage caused by a 2011 earthquake). The beloved Tidal Basin cherry trees need care and occasional replacement, with countless feet trampling their roots every spring. Last summer, an August heat wave led to the death of hundreds of fish in the shallow, poorly circulating pond in Constitution Gardens, creating an unsightly (and smelly) problem for NPS. The list goes on.

Caretakers of the National Mall are trying to figure out how best to deal with the "biofilm" coating the Jefferson Memorial/Trust for the National Mall

The Mall is vulnerable in part because of the capital’s underlying geography. Although the conventional wisdom is that the District of Columbia is built on a swamp, in fact only certain portions of the city were swampy. When Pierre L’Enfant made his famous layout for the capital, he found an area of surprising geographic diversity, with hills and forests, tidal flats and low-lying plains. Tiber Creek once ran along what is now the National Mall, before it was converted into a canal and later enclosed. As a city that is nearly surrounded by rivers (the Potomac and the Anacostia), it was, and still is, prone to flooding.

Often, the solutions to the Mall’s problems are tricky and expensive. Biofilm, for example, is notoriously hard to deal with, composed of opportunistic bacteria, fungi, and algae that proliferate in weathered, pitted marble and stone. The Park Service has now employed a team of conservators to test different treatment plans for the Jefferson Memorial, but it’s difficult to clean and remove the film, and some experts say that it can even have a protective quality. The outcome remains to be seen.

Adding to the Mall’s concerns is an uncertain budget environment, with the Trump administration calling for a $1.5 billion cut to the Interior Department budget, which funds the Park Service. Although it is up to Congress to determine what the actual appropriation will be, it is likely that the agency will have to do more with less and continue to rely on private partnerships for support and fundraising. “While the National Mall has a disproportionate share of the backlog,” says Park Service spokesman Michael Litterst, “we also have some resources and private partners.”

The Trust for the National Mall, as one of those key partners, has raised funds and awareness about many of the Mall’s problem areas, including the Jefferson Memorial, the Tidal Basin, and so on.

“Part of what we do is true restoration and preservation of the structures that are already there, making sure they are in good order,” says Kate Greenberg, the Trust’s director of marketing and partnerships. “The other part is we look at the rest of the Mall and develop plans to make it work better as an urban park.”

Cherry trees in bloom attract thousands of visitors to the National Mall in spring, and improvements to Constitution Gardens are expected to make it a more popular destination within the Mall / Trust for the National Mall

The Trust’s current projects include a renovation of the open-air Sylvan Theater on the Washington Monument grounds, landscape rehabilitation of Constitution Gardens, and a new plaza and exhibits for a historic Lockkeeper’s House (see sidebar).

Work is also under way to rehabilitate and expand visitor services at the Lincoln Memorial, as well as the aforementioned elevator repairs for the Washington Monument, thanks in large measure to an ongoing partnership between the National Park Foundation and philanthropist David Rubenstein, who has given tens of millions for various projects on the Mall.

“Rubenstein’s $18.5 million gift will provide the lion’s share of the support for the Lincoln Memorial and expansion of visitor services there, which will add 15,000 square feet of functional space,” says Will Shafroth, president of the Foundation, which works with the Trust for the National Mall and other “friends” groups at parks across the country. “That’s the benefit of private philanthropy.”

Yet, these groups acknowledge that congressional dollars are still needed to address the Mall’s heavy needs. Back in 2009, the American Society of Landscape Architects convened a panel of design professionals to make recommendations for the Mall, urging that future preservation efforts incorporate sustainable materials, among other things. Nancy Somerville, ASLA’s executive vice president and CEO, praises a recent turf rehabilitation effort on the Mall that included specially grown sod, drainage systems, and engineered soils.

Along with other park partners, ASLA is now advocating for the passage of the National Park Service Legacy Act of 2017, a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would allocate oil and natural gas royalties towards addressing the Park Service’s maintenance backlog, including the Mall’s long list.

“In any annual budget, there simply has not been enough to address all of the needs of the National Mall,” says Ms. Greenberg. “There has always been a need for private dollars…There is a need today and there will continue to be a need in the future.”

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From the wiki on biofilm: "...It has recently been shown that biofilms are present on the removed tissue of 80% of patients undergoing surgery for chronic sinusitis. The patients with biofilms were shown to have been denuded of cilia and goblet cells, unlike the controls without biofilms who had normal cilia and goblet cell morphology...Biofilms can also be formed on the inert surfaces of implanted devices such as catheters, prosthetic cardiac valves and intrauterine devices.".

The parks of this country have been neglected as this article points our for decades.  While Obama and the Democrats who were in charge of the House gave lip service to the ideals of the park service, they certainly werent willing to put OUR money where their MOUTH is. Rather, their focus has been adding more to the budget to support more and more entitlements. As a result, the  can has repeatedly been kicked down the road, and now lies at Trump's feet.  And Im sure he will be blamed for all of the issues now facing the park system. When this problems were easier to take care of, they werent

Those of us who believe that the Parks are critical to America and deserve our full financial support, should take it to both the Democrats and Republicans.  For far too long, we have allowed the Democrats to play us. I for one am done with that.  Kudos to the various "friends" and related organizations and volunteers for all of the work they actually   do in the various parks.

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The Lockkeeper's House is undergoing a significant renovation/Trust for the National Mall

Restoring The Lockkeeper's House

The oldest structure on the National Mall is about to get a brand new treatment. Dating to 1835, the Lockkeeper’s House has anchored a prominent corner of the National Mall (17th Street N.W. and Constitution Avenue), but most passersby are unaware of its history. 

This modest stone structure was once the home and workplace for the keeper of the lock that connected the Washington City Canal, which once ran along the current location of the National Mall, with an extension of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which begins in Georgetown. Although the little house has witnessed the growth of the National Mall and the national capital all around it, it offers very little interpretation of this development for visitors. Barred and boarded-up windows further detract from its appearance.

But that is all about to change. With funding raised by the Trust for the National Mall in partnership with the National Park Service, construction began this spring on a project to move the Lockkeeper’s House about 20 feet back from the street and create a visitor plaza to interpret its role in the evolution of the capital. New digital exhibits inside the house will further examine this history, as well as efforts to protect the nearby Constitution Gardens. The first phase of this effort should be complete by early next year.

“The exhibit would give people a grounding in this important history,” says Kate Greenberg, the Trust’s director of marketing and partnerships. “It will be a gateway for the rest of the National Mall.”

A major restoration project will not only move the Lockkeeper’s House back a bit, but create a more visitor-friendly setting and repair the historic house / Trust for the National Mall

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