Histories: Told and Untold

The National Mall Tidal Basin is a 19th–century hydrological engineering achievement that had become, by the beginning of the 20th–century, a place of recreation and memorialization. Both well-known and lesser-known actors have given it shape.

1 Controlling Nature

Potomac River flood, 1881

Photographer: Ranald Douglas Courtesy Library of Congress LC-DIG-stereo-1s04767

How a Tidal Basin Works

Creator: Jill Patricia Caouette Courtesy Library of Congress
 HAER DC,WASH,574-sheet 2 of 3

Tidal Basin Reservoir

Creator: Jill Patricia Caouette Courtesy Library of Congress
 HAER DC,WASH,574-sheet 1 of 3

Before Europeans arrived, the land that now constitutes metropolitan Washington, DC, contained abundant natural resources that supported the people living there. Evidence suggests that the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and adjacent areas served as a trading center for local tribes. As Washington grew in the 19th century, the area’s wetlands were targeted for development. In 1881, after a major flood, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Potomac River and used sediment from the Washington Channel shipping canal to fill in the swamp. Six years later, engineers installed gates at the entrance and exit of a new pond (now the Tidal Basin) that controlled the flow of water at high and low tides.

Linking Past and Future Hood Design Studio’s proposal links the site’s natural features to American history. Interpretive signage points out that wetlands in nearby plantations served as “hush harbors,” places where enslaved people congregated and practiced religion in secret.

Building the Kutz Bridge, c. 1940

Courtesy Library of Congress LC-DIG-fsa-8d36478

Reconstructing the Tidal Basin’s seawall, 2000s

Courtesy Clark Construction

Carrying Independence Avenue across the Tidal Basin, the Kutz Memorial Bridge was named after Brigadier General Charles W. Kutz, Washington’s Commissioner of Engineering during the first half of the 20th century. The bridge was designed by Paul Philippe Cret and completed in 1943. Archie Alphonso Alexander, an African-American engineer, built the bridge with his partner Maurice Repass. Refusing to racially segregate the work site, they hired both African-American and white laborers. In recent decades, major reconstruction efforts have been needed to repair the Tidal Basin’s infrastructure.

2 Public Space: Not Always Open to the Public

Diving, c. 1920

Photographer: Harris & Ewing Courtesy Library of Congress 

Diving, c. 1920

Photographer: Harris & Ewing Courtesy Library of Congress LC-DIG-hec-30165

The construction of the capital’s infrastructure resulted in the creation of over 600 acres of reclaimed land from dredged materials and fill—including the Tidal Basin. In 1897 Congress designated these lands as Potomac Park to be used for the “recreation and pleasure of the people,” but access was regulated on a racial basis.

Linking Past and Future Many of the Ideas Lab proposals enhance the Tidal Basin’s historic role as a place of recreation. Reed Hilderbrand specifically draws on the idea of a “Washington Common,” first explored in the landmark McMillan Plan of 1902.

Cartoon by Clifford Berryman published in the 
Washington Evening Star, 1925

Courtesy American University Library Special Collections

Swimming class, early 1920s

Courtesy Library of Congress LC-DIG-npcc-02122

The Tidal Basin’s public beach, where swimming lessons were provided, was initially opened to whites only. In 1922, responding to protests, backed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Congress appropriated money to build a separate facility. Protesters advocated for a site on the Tidal Basin. Congress instead proposed a beach for DC’s black residents on the Anacostia River; African Americans deemed this site unsafe. An impasse ensued, the proposed swimming amenity was never realized, and in 1925 Congress closed the existing beach.

Fishing, 1920-1950

Photographer: Theodor Horydczak Courtesy Library of Congress

Stocking fish at the Tidal Basin, 1925

Courtesy Library of Congress LC-USZ62-113055

Woman fishing at the Tidal Basin, 1957

Photographer: Toni Frissell Courtesy Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-01947

In 1925 the Tidal Basin was the best place to fish in DC. That year, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries stocked the waters with fish. Unlike segregated swimming at the site’s public beach, fishing was open to both blacks and whites. In subsequent decades, pollution increased, and by 1970 signs appeared alerting people that fish could be contaminated. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Tidal Basin’s water has been cleaner and fishing permitted.

3 Making Washington Bloom: The Role of Women

Sumi and Sada Tamura, 1925

Courtesy Library of Congress LC-DIG-npcc-13273

Cherry Blossom Festival, 1936

Photographer: Harris & Ewing Courtesy Library of Congress LC-DIG-hec-40355

Tourists and DC residents alike flock to the Tidal Basin to view blossoming trees and flowers. On March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Herron Taft oversaw the planting of the basin’s first 2,000 cherry trees, a gift from Mayor Ozaki of Tokyo to reflect the growing friendship between the United States and Japan. Writer, photographer, and geographer Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, conceived of the idea after many visits to Japan. Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States, also supported the scheme.

Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson planting cherry tree, April 6, 1965

Courtesy National Park Service

Floral Library, 2008

Courtesy National Park Sevice

As First Lady, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson launched an initiative to beautify the nation’s cities and highways. In 1965 Johnson accepted 3,800 cherry trees from Japan for the Tidal Basin. Four years later, her Capital Beautification Project established the Floral Library. It was the first Tidal Basin site designed by a woman, Darwina L. Neal, landscape architect for the National Park Service. The Floral Library, also known as the Tulip Library, initially contained 13,000 tulips; today, depending on the time of year, its 93 flower beds feature either tulips or annuals.

4. Contested Monuments: Who Writes Our History?

Jefferson Memorial, 1991

Photographer: John T. “Jet” Lowe Courtesy Library of Congress HABS DC,WASH,453--11

Jefferson Memorial, ca. 1945

Photographer: Theodor Horydczak Courtesy Library of Congress LC-H813-2251-003

In 1943, with the completion of the Jefferson Memorial, the Tidal Basin began its transformation into a setting for monuments to significant American figures. These imposing structures have for many become synonymous with national identity, yet controversy has swirled around not only their design, but also their very existence. The Jefferson Memorial is no exception. In 2020, a New York Times op-ed essay written by one of Jefferson’s heirs, advocated that the sculpture of the slave-owning Founding Father be replaced by one of former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

Roosevelt with his dog Fala by Neil Carl Estern, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, 2000

Photographer: Sam Kittner Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation

Depression Breadline by George Segal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, 2000

Photographer: Sam Kittner Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation

Sculpture of Franklin Roosevelt by Robert Graham, c. 2001

Photographer: Victoria Stauffenberg Courtesy of National Park Service

Designed by the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and completed in 1997, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial comprises extensive fountains as well as outdoor rooms containing sculptures. In 2001, in response to criticism from disability rights activists, a sculpture by artist Robert Graham depicting Roosevelt in a wheelchair was added to the memorial.

Linking Past and Future James Corner Field Operations questions the relevance of preserving historical monuments. In one of its schemes, nature takes over, the site floods, and monuments gracefully age and decay into picturesque ruins.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial

Photographer: Sam Kittner Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation

Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial

Photographer: Sam Kittner Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation

Located along a sightline linking memorials to President Jefferson, a slave owner, and President Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial honors the first African American memorialized on or near the National Mall. The memorial’s granite sculpture by Lei Yixin was dedicated in 2011. The base of the sculpture originally contained the inscription, "I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness," which paraphrased a quotation by King. Some critics argued that the paraphrase made King seem arrogant; the sculptor removed the passage in 2013.

Linking Past and Future Many of Ideas Labs proposals call for moving monuments due to environmental considerations. DLANDstudio relocates the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial to a newly constructed jetty off the Lincoln Memorial, making explicit the connection between Lincoln and King.

5. Protests and Demonstrations on a National Stage

Members of the Bonus Army, known as “Bonusers,” bathing and relaxing in the Tidal Basin, June 1932

Courtesy Library of Congress LC-USZ62-31107

Bonusers at the Capitol, July 1932

Photographer: Underwood and Underwood Courtesy Library of Congress LC-USZ62-31111

Not only the site of recreation and memorialization, the Tidal Basin has also witnessed protests. In June 1932, at the depths of the Great Depression, 17,000 World War I veterans and their families—the so-called Bonus Army—gathered at various sites in Washington, DC, to demand receipt of the bonuses to compensate for income they had lost while in service. Though the veterans had been promised to receive the bonuses in 1948, dire economic circumstances motivated them to demand action. Four years after the demonstrations, Congress overrode a presidential veto and issued the bonuses.

MayDay Tribe encampment, 1971

Courtesy American University Library Special Collections

MayDay Tribe encampment, 1971, showing a pathway named after the North Vietnamese leader

Courtesy American University Library Special Collections

The Japanese Stone Lantern at the Tidal Basin, 1969

Courtesy the Baltimore Sun darkroom.baltimoresun.com

The Vietnam War ignited demonstrations at the Tidal Basin. In 1971 an antiwar group called MayDay Tribe set up a camp at the Basin’s edge, naming the site People’s City or Algonquin Peace City, the latter after the indigenous people who had inhabited the area before European colonists. A year later,  about 300 peace activists marched to the Japanese Stone Lantern to evoke the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan had gifted the Stone Lantern to the United States in 1921, but it was not installed and dedicated until March 30, 1954.

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