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The National Mall in Washington, D.C. is hallowed ground for the memorials and monuments that pay homage to those who founded, fought for and changed the nation. But as history marches on, space on the mall available for honoring the past is shrinking. Groundbreaking for a Martin Luther King memorial is set for November 13.
As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, it may be the last memorial to be built on what we know think of as the Mall.
LYNN NEARY: When the organizers behind the King Memorial were looking for a site, they were offered a number of options, but Harry Johnson, president of the Memorial Foundation, says there was no doubt about where it should be.
Mr. HARRY JOHNSON (Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation): When they saw the land where we have now, it was just kind of earth shattering that we need to be there.
NEARY: There is one of the prime pieces of real estate on the National Mall, across from the Jefferson Memorial, just behind the cherry blossom trees that ring the Tidal Basin. They bloom at the end of April, right around the day when King was assassinated. A short distance away is the Lincoln Memorial. This, says Johnson, is where the King Memorial belongs.
Mr. JOHNSON: Between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and with the other heroes of this country. It is my belief and the belief of others that Dr. King was, in fact, a hero of this country. Helped mending this country back together and that's his rightful place to be right there with our other leaders.
NEARY: The site for the Martin Luther King Memorial was approved in 1999. In 2003, because of concerns about overcrowding, Congress declared the Mall a completed work of civic art and imposed a moratorium on new buildings and memorials on the Mall. Organizers of future memorials could choose among sites scattered throughout the City of Washington.
Mr. CARL Reddel (Eisenhower Memorial Commission): We were completely open. We tried to discover for ourselves what might be a good site or location.
NEARY: Carl Reddel is the executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. That commission just got approval to build on a plot of land across the street from the enormously popular Air and Space Museum. The memorial will be outside the main part of the Mall but not by much. Reddel says his commission did look at other sites but felt Eisenhower deserved to be as close to the Mall as possible.
Mr. REDDEL: They felt it had to be publicly accessible. It had to have some relationship to the young. It had to do a number of things and that began to color their view of some of these sights and they'd say well, that's just too far out. People won't go.
NEARY: In fact, most people interested in putting up new memorials or museums still want to be on or very near to the Mall. Judy Feldman is head of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.
Ms. JUDY FELDMAN (National Coalition to Save Our Mall): People see off Mall sites as second rate. Nobody wants to be off the Mall. Everyone wants to be there with Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson.
NEARY: Since imposing the moratorium, Feldman says, Congress has already made exceptions for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitor's Center and the African American History Museum. She says more projects are in the pipeline, projects Congress might find it politically difficult to turn down.
So Feldman argues instead of saying nothing new can be built on the Mall, the Mall should be extended.
Ms. FELDMAN: Well, let's walk out and see what we can see here.
NEARY: Feldman takes me on a tour of an area that she believes could become part of the Mall. A road flanked by grim looking government buildings dead ends in a fountain set in a small, circular park that is bordered by concrete walls. It's known as the Banneker Memorial Plaza.
Ms. FELDMAN: The trees in the Banneker Overlook Plaza are pathetic. They're just not thriving, so in the winter it's freezing cold and in the summer it's boiling hot and dry. But again, if it's connected by a pedestrian bridge down to the waterfront, as you'll see in a minute, suddenly this becomes the means of getting to a whole new world along the waterfront.
NEARY: It takes a lot of vision and not a small dose of optimism to believe that this uninviting little park could one day become an area where tourists would flock. But there are historic precedents for such a proposal. Michael Kammen is the author of Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in America.
Mr. MICHAEL KAMMEN (Author, Visual Shock): What we consider now the west end of the mall, where the Lincoln Memorial is located and the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that whole area was a very marshy swamp.
NEARY: Kammen says opposition to placing the Lincoln Memorial on that site was fierce.
Mr. KAMMEN: Well, the Speaker of the House of Representatives at that time, Joe Cannon, was a Midwesterner who was a great fan of Abraham Lincoln and he wrote a letter to the Secretary of War saying I'll be God damned if you will dishonor Abraham Lincoln by putting a memorial to him in that swamp.
NEARY: People may think the Mall was always meant to look the way it does today, but in fact, says Kammen, it's always been a shifting landscape.
Still, says Dan Feil, architect for the Eisenhower Memorial, that perception that the Mall is an inviolable, sacred space will have to be overcome before any radical changes can be made.
Mr. DAN FEIL (Architect, Eisenhower Memorial): This is the central lawn for the country, and if you're honoring someone who had a national impact then being in this general area has a lot of meaning. And I don't know that you can duplicate that elsewhere.
NEARY: The Coalition to Save Our Mall is not the only organization looking toward the future. The National Park Service wants the public to make recommendations about how the Mall should look as well. One way or another, says Judy Feldman, change is inevitable because history never stops and there will always be more presidents, heroes and wars needing to be memorialized.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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