Generally speaking, the National Mall is a big dead space. Don’t misunderstand: This is not to say that it should be built upon or made hard-surfaced – Washington has too much of that already. But it is a missed opportunity for a lovely green swath that could be like parts of Central Park or the Tuileries. After all, there were plans for it starting with Pierre Charles l’Enfant in 1791, followed by landscape designs of Andrew Jackson Downing’s in the early 1850s, and it was even touched by the hand of Frederick Law Olmsted while working on the Capitol grounds between 1874-1892. As it stands, it isn’t exactly an emblem of what our better selves could be; rather, it is a pedestrian symbol of our reckless disregard for the bounty, promise and natural riches that this land has given as we have taken and casually abused it. Oh, sure, there is the event every four years that requires human multitudes to gather ceremoniously in a contained space in order to behold the new leader, but that could be accomplished in the streets every four years – there are plenty of those to accommodate.
Grumbling aside, there is one small feature, a glimmer of civility and hope that provides not only a respite from the relentless wasteland but also a strong sense of place in an otherwise placeless tract. A diminutive brick structure pokes enticingly out of a sloping mound just north of the Capitol. It is decoratively curvaceous with its arches, volute parapets, undulating tile and oval windows. And it is short of stature, as opposed to the bigger-than-life structures that line the streets on either side of the Mall. Its friendly demeanor beckons you to enter, down some stone steps toward a round fountain resembling an old well. The Mall is relentlessly open and hot, while this magical spot is shady and cool as an underground spring. It is the Summer House, built between 1879-1881 and designed by Olmsted, all red brick and slate and looking like a Frank Furness building pushed into the ground.
The Summer House has allusions to Chinese and Middle Eastern architecture with its shaped openings and niches, incised designs and decorative ironwork. When you enter the building (and you aren’t quite sure that you should because it doesn’t appear to be a public building – no signage, guards or queues – and it is very intimate), not only does the temperature drop by the double digits despite the open-air roof, but you are in a world familiar and yet unlike any you have seen before. The structure is a hexagon with three entrances, a kind of pagoda or garden folly but halfway below grade. It is very textural: the brick patterns, the contrast between the smooth gray stone and the more graphic brick that changes direction and becomes 3-dimensional, bulging out in places and then disappearing gracefully, creating openings in others. Lining the interior walls are benches made of slate, ceremonial seats that you might see in a waiting room, with shiny well-rounded arm rests creating separate seating spaces – twenty-two in all, for twenty-two lucky souls who find it and appreciate its charms. Two windows provide filtered light through perforated stone screens and allow glimpses of the surrounding landscape; a third, though, looks into an artificial grotto built into the hillock, complete with craggy rocks and dripping water to create the vision – a view into the center of the earth. There is here, in this unlikely place, a potential for reflection and refueling.
Perhaps in the mile or so of its length, the Mall – a barren no-man’s-land that one hurries across, eyes fixed on maps, in the pinball-bounce back-and-forth between museums – offers no other sense of place, it being such an anti-place. Although, come to think of it, just adjacent to the Mall, toward the opposite end, is another powerful place-maker: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, by Maya Lin. Funny that it is also dug into the ground, gashed really, and it resonates in its own connection to its site. Much of the Wall’s impact, though, is in its chilling number of names as much as its reflective, tomb-like presence. Its sense of place has quite a different effect from the Summer House’s. Quite the opposite, since so much surrounding the Mall is monumental, in both senses, so you don’t expect something so magical and human scale – the Summer House – to be situated on it. This disconnect makes it seem as if it is a mirage. Really, it is an oasis. And it is so sweet. Precious, in fact. And despite its small, partly buried size, it is hugely important, not only for the respite it provides but for the place it makes.