Water on the Mall

I’ve been living in Washington, D.C., this summer, and if there’s one thing that’s amazed me about the National Mall, it’s this: There are fountains everywhere.

Don’t get me wrong—pretty much everything about the National Mall is amazing, which is kind of the point. If you haven’t been there before, the Mall is a seemingly endless collection of museums and monuments, stretching from Congress at one end to the Lincoln Memorial at the other. Highlights include the Jefferson Memorial, the National Museum of Natural History, and the gorgeous United States Botanic Garden (which, incidentally, has a pretty neat sustainability initiative.)

I’ve spent several weekends walking up and down the Mall, and even with all of the great museums and historic sights, the thing that’s really caught my attention is all the water. There’s hardly a memorial that doesn’t use water as a means of paying homage, and I’ve started to joke that no government building could possibly be important if it doesn’t have at least three fountains. (I know, I’m hilarious.)

At this point you probably want examples. Some of the best fountains I’ve seen:

ImageYes, that’s the White House! Specifically, it’s the North Lawn. And there’s a second fountain on the other side.

ImageOne of four waterfalls at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which is all the more majestic after dark. Roosevelt gets four waterfalls because he was elected president four times. (I might be making that part up.)

Image This is the “Fountain of Light and Water” at the U.S Botanic Garden, designed in 1876 by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who also designed the Statue of Liberty. (If you’re wondering why this photo is so much higher-quality than the other ones, it’s from Wikipedia, rather than my scratched iPhone camera.)

ImageWhile not technically a fountain, the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool—which stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument—is D.C.’s most iconic body of water. It was built in the early 1920s after the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. It used to be a stagnant pool that was regularly replenishment with potable water, but after an extensive renovation, it was reopened last year using circulating water from the nearby Tidal Basin.

Image The fountain at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Another Wikipedia photo.

Just how many fountains—and other bodies of water—populate the National Mall? I couldn’t find a comprehensive list (or, rather, Google couldn’t), but I count at least 37. (Check back later for the list, complete with historical context and other fun facts.)

But more important than the number of fountains is the idea of what all this water stands for. As American leaders have built up our capitol city over the last two centuries, they have chosen time and again to honor our great leaders, and to adorn our most important buildings and landscapes, with water. It’s now impossible to pay tribute to Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln, or to visit the White House, Congress, or the Supreme Court, without marveling at the spectacular displays of water that surround them.

No master planner, as far as I can tell, ever sat down and decided that water should be a central motif in the heart of the capitol. Lady Bird Johnson once said she would like to “frame the White House in water,” but on the whole, there was no coordinated effort to make water a defining characteristic of almost every monument, memorial, and historical place on the National Mall. Why, then, have so many architects, and so many landscape designers, chosen to feature water so prominently in this extraordinary place?

Because water is beautiful without being extravagant, and grandiose without being gaudy. Because it is at once soothing, and stirring, and peaceful, and powerful. Because it is both a force of immense strength and a source of joy and hope. Because, in other words, it encapsulates everything we want our nation, and its history, to be.

Is that a presumptuous statement for me to make, after less than a month in D.C. and with absolutely no background in architecture or landscape design? Probably. But you try walking down the Mall and telling me there isn’t something unique about water, something about the way it can make us feel an even greater reverence toward people and buildings we’re already inclined to revere.

One of my favorite moments on the Mall, at least so far, was walking along on the bank of the Potomac River at night, while making my way from the Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial. As I gazed out over the peaceful water, and realized that there were fireflies all around me, I thought about the fountains and other bodies of water that had sprung up throughout the Mall. The Potomac, of course, had been there first, and I wondered whether it was the inspiration for everything came later.

I’m not saying that the National Mall would be boring without its fountains. But I wouldn’t want to find out.

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