- Associated Press - Monday, April 9, 2012

Lakeside gardens, dining rooms hovering over water, grassy new amphitheaters and underground pavilions at the foot of the Washington Monument have emerged as finalists in a design competition to overhaul neglected sites on the Mall.

Designers and architects are dreaming big for a chance to improve the place sometimes called America’s front yard. One vision calls for a garden “museum without walls” in part of the Mall called Constitution Gardens. Another would “peel up” the landscape of the Washington Monument to reveal a theater and visitor amenities below ground.

The Associated Press had an exclusive early look at the results of a competition conducted by the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall. The finalists’ concepts will go on display Monday through Sunday at the Smithsonian Castle and National Museum of American History.

Since September, architects and designers have been competing for the chance to make over areas near the Capitol, Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens, which once was imagined as a pastoral park near the Lincoln Memorial. It has since been left as a fetid pool with crumbling edges, surrounded by broken sidewalks. Each of the designs would bring major changes, adding amenities including food options and restrooms.

“The face of the Mall is going to change quite dramatically,” said Donald Stastny, an architect hired to oversee the competition. “If you’re in Constitution Gardens, it’s going to be cool, as opposed to ‘How did I end up in this place?’ “

The nonprofit trust aims to raise $350 million to help restore the Mall, beginning with one of these sites. Former first lady Laura Bush joined the fundraising effort last year, and the group committed $875,000 to the design competition.

After sifting through entries from 32 teams, a jury picked four finalists for each of the three sites. Organizers are seeking public comment to help select a winner for each site in May. The group aims to build one of the designs, overhauling either Constitution Gardens or the Washington Monument grounds by 2016.

Midway through the competition, Congress voted to remove the third site from the National Park Service’s property, citing security concerns. Union Square, which includes the Capitol Reflecting Pool and a memorial to Ulysses S. Grant, had been envisioned as a space for demonstrations or protests, but Congress placed it under control of the Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police instead.

Still, a winning design for it will be sent to congressional overseers. One option calls for a new reflecting pool that would send ripples from the House and Senate sides of Congress. On the other side, a visitor could speak through a microphone to send ripples back as a symbol of public discourse.

Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall, said the group will assess the costs, the Mall’s needs, donor interests and other construction plans to determine which project will go forward first. The group aims to complete fundraising for the project in 2014.

For the Constitution Gardens site, the design possibilities offer significant improvements. The park with a lake framed by trees was dedicated in 1976, and a memorial was added a few years later on a small island honoring the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. The park was slated to have a restaurant, but funds ran out. Over the past 30 years, the grounds have grown shabby.

Designers propose glass pavilions or buildings growing out of earthen berms and performance spaces and cafes. They would open up views to the nearby Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial and link the park to one of Washington’s main boulevards nearby.

“So if you’re standing in that area, you aren’t just looking at the memorial, you’re thinking about the memorial in a larger context of the city and the monuments that are around it,” said Mr. Stastny, who previously managed design selections for the Oklahoma City and Flight 93 national memorials.

The Washington Monument grounds are in better shape after recent security upgrades by the National Park Service, but a theater space has been neglected for years. There are few restrooms or food options for millions of annual visitors.

One proposal from New York-based landscape architect Diana Balmori would create a grassy bowl around an outdoor theater and add a garden roof to produce food for a restaurant below. Another design, by New York-based Diller Scofidio Renfro and Hood Design would “peel up” the landscape to serve as an outdoor theater and reveal a new underground structure.

“The whole intent is that the Mall continues to be an evolving place,” Mr. Stastny said. “The improvements at this point will carry us into the next evolution - I think that’s what a lot of the designers are feeling.”

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