WASHINGTON — 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 National 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 last September, architects and designers have been competing for the chance to make over areas near the Capitol, Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens, which was once 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 National Mall group 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. In the past 30 years, the grounds grew 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 Stastny, who previously managed design selections for the Oklahoma City and Flight 93 national memorials.
The designs will bring the next evolution of the mall, Stastny said, as a place that has changed significantly over the decades through war time and with the addition of new memorials.
Stan Burgess, a retired architect who lives in Washington, walks the length of the mall each day for exercise and visited the Smithsonian on Monday to see the designs for a possible overhaul. The designs seem to "keep the spirit of the place" while adding amenities and environmental awareness, he said. Constitution Gardens in particular could use "some animation," that would come with restaurants, cafes, an ice skating rink or a basin for model boats, he said.
"Of all of the areas under the aegis of the National Park Service ... it seems to me the one that's the most neglected, Constitution Gardens," Burgess said. "Granite curbs to the basin right now, there are five of six of them that have fallen into the water, and they've been that way for several years."
Still, he predicted the Washington Monument might get the most attention because it's a signature site for the nation's capital.
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.
Sharon Gomez of Union City, N.J., viewed the designs and said she would welcome new restaurants or performance spaces, as long as they don't obstruct views of the memorials. However, Mingshan Zheng of Falls Church, Va., said it would be a mistake to put "too many businesses in a landmark place."
"You could have a little Starbucks, but don't be too big," she said. "If you add in too much, it will be not much different than any other place."
National Mall Design Competition: http://www.nationalmall.org/design-competition/
Follow Brett Zongker on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat