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New hope for the National Mall

February 24, 2009 |  5:00 am


"Help!" I imagine Abe Lincoln pleading to Ken Salazar, the Obama administration's new Interior secretary, shown above at a 200th birthday celebration held the other day at the Lincoln Memorial on Washington's National Mall. As has been widely reported, the Mall is a mess -- which isn't surprising, given that maintenance alone has been deferred to the tune of at least $350 million.

No wonder the Jefferson Memorial is apparently sinking into the Tidal Basin; Washington is swampland, remember, and vast swaths of the Mall are landfill. Congress' federal jobs-stimulus package had $200 million for Mall repairs such as this. It didn't come close to the immediate need, never mind addressing desperately needed upgrades to a place that gets 25 million annual visitors. (Bathrooms, anyone?) But it was foolishly sliced out anyhow to placate pecksniffian opponents of the bill, who caricatured the item as the World's Most Expensive Lawn Care.

Cartoons apparently play better on the political chat shows than acknowledging the ensemble of parks, monuments, memorials and museums for what it actually is: the greatest work of civic art the United States has produced. And art, not just the environment, requires conservation.

Perhaps because he hails from the environmentally conscious West (Colorado), Secretary Salazar appears to understand that. The Washington Post reported Sunday that his agenda "lists preservation of the Mall as a top priority." That's good news. And it's a critical first step toward tackling the broken planning process that prevents a full rethinking of where Mall design should be headed for the 21st century.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, left, and Lincoln impersonator Chestor Damron. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press