Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theater: OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi
Trust for the National Mall Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theater: OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi

Millions of people visit the National Mall every year. Several of them arrive by a portal that goes virtually unused by any of Washington, D.C.’s authentic residents: the tour bus. And as it stands, the tour bus circles that bring visitors to the National Mall don’t exactly present a grand vista to welcome visitors and foreigners.

“It’s so iconic, you can forget that it’s a real place with real needs,” says Michael Manfredi, FAIA. “It needs a little help—some design attention.”

Manfredi is part of one of the winning design teams tasked with restoring the National Mall. Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, and Olin have been tapped to redesign the Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theater, an area that is presently an interstitial space between the physical Mall and the Tidal Basin.

Manfredi and Marion Weiss, FAIA, say that they hope to both restore an original vision for the area and also renovate it for uses that the Mall’s founders did not consider.

“It’s a monument to memorial,” says Weiss of the National Mall, “but there’s no place to rest. That seemed like an important thing to weave in.”

The dream of the original Sylvan Theater was as a Shakespearean theater for the Mall to recall A Midsummer Night's Dream, the architects say, but the Washington landscape does not lend itself to a forested sylvan pastoral. Weiss/Manfredi intends to introduce shade and canopy to part of the area. Vistas that currently face highway traffic will be turned around to face the Washington Monument. The redesign will lift the land, forming a natural, elevated amphitheater and creating an S-shaped ridge that will connect Independence Avenue with the Tidal Basin.

“One of the things that’s so basic and elemental is that it’s really hard to find a place to have a drink, a coffee, a Coke,” Manfredi says. The architects’ design will change this, tucking a café space into a natural fold of the landscape. “We love the hybridity of this. You can’t tell if the café is emerging from or melting into the landscape. Maybe a Shake Shack or something.”

The next step, says Weiss, will be establishing the budget for such features as Independence Plaza, a southern gateway to the National Mall—the place where all the buses drop off tourists. Weiss says that their design kills two birds with one stone: The elevated amphitheater conceals the buses from view while also framing a gateway for people exiting the buses.

“There are 6 or 7 million people who enter the Mall from this particular spot,” Weiss says. “What’s depressing and exhilarating about it—with a few strategic design moves, this opens up as a wonderful gateway for the 30 percent or so of people who visit it [the National Mall].”

Weiss/Manfredi is one of three teams to win an opportunity to redesign part of the National Mall. Rogers Marvel Architects and Peter Walker and Partners will redesign Constitution Gardens east of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, while Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and Davis Brody Bond will take on Union Square near the Capitol.

The Washington Monument grounds won’t be Weiss/Manfredi’s first project in the capital area: The firm got its start by designing the Women In Military Service For America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. But the grounds of the Washington Monument will be the studio’s biggest project for Washington.

“It’s the belly button of the Mall,” Manfredi says. “A few basic visitor amenities would completely transform this place.”