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Mall Garden to Emphasize 'Garden'

June 19, 1997|The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The emphasis in many sculpture gardens is more on sculpture than garden. But that won't be the case with the development of the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden on the Mall.

Gallery heads, benefactors and the principal designer, landscape architect Laurie Olin, attended a ground-breaking ceremony last week at the six-acre site on Constitution Avenue just west of the Gallery's West Wing on a piece of land now occupied by a skating rink and pavilion, which will be kept.

When it opens 15 months from now, the garden will be parklike in its reliance on mature trees, shrubberies and ground covers.

Olin plans to add 32 large shade, evergreen and understory trees to the 30 mature trees already on the site, creating a near-instant shady retreat and woodland setting, not just for the pieces of sculpture to be displayed there but also for the public seeking relief from the summer heat on the Mall.

"It's a garden first," said Olin, a leading designer based in Philadelphia.

The classical, formal open axis of the Mall provides few areas of shade and retreat. This was not always the case: For the last half of the 19th century, much of it was wooded with curving paths, inspired by a design by the father of landscape architecture, Andrew Jackson Downing. This was replaced earlier this century when the McMillan Commission, appointed by a Senate committee in 1901, recommended design principles based on Pierre L'Enfant's original plan for the federal city.

The sculpture garden, Olin said, will restore some of Downing's lost idyll.

The garden's scheduled opening in the fall of next year will come more than 32 years after it was first proposed. A lack of public funding and rethinking of proposed designs have stalled previous efforts.

The garden, said Cafritz Foundation President Calvin Cafritz, will turn that corner of the Mall into "a place of quiet beauty." Downing, we assume, would be pleased.

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