There was a time, not terribly long ago, really, when Washington’s Mall amounted to a vast expanse of lawn, acres of concrete, a set of enormous museums, a few noble but far-off monuments, and that long vista toward the Capitol Building. I can remember not twenty years ago feeling that the Mall lacked intimacy and seemed all too impersonal. There were few quiet nooks or places to withdraw. Above all, there was nowhere to escape the press of a large city, the sense of being surrounded by large buildings and thousands of people. What it the Mall lacked, in short, was gardens.
Now, I know perfectly well that most visitors don’t come to the Mall to visit gardens. I’m not suggesting that the Smithsonian museums will ever be upstaged by a fine display of perennials. But I’d like to coax would-be visitors into some of the many lovely gardens that have sprung up in recent years, places where the weary museum goer can regroup or sit quietly for a few moments. And the Mall’s gardens, well, they’re just a few paces away from the Hope Diamond, a Gutenberg Bible, the Declaration of Independence and other splendors of Washington.
One of the most charming and best-known gardens, the Enid A. Haupt Garden, lies directly behind the Smithsonian Castle. The most frequently photographed and visited garden, it’s a rather Victorian-looking affair that is of a piece with the Castle, full of busy, formal-patterned plantings that are changed faithfully throughout the season – pansies and tulips in early spring, then perhaps salvias and petunias in the summer, culminating with the invariable late-fall and winter standbys, ornamental kales and cabbages.
To one side of the Haupt Parterre, with its hooped wrought-iron railings, floral parterres, and ornate urns, is a soothing ‘Island Garden’ patterned on the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Here water is the predominate feature, with the contrast of rock and water symbolizing nature’s basic components.
This garden lies just outside the Sackler Gallery, which is devoted to Asian art. Oh, and this reminds me that the courtyard of the Sackler’s sister museum, the Freer, is another wonderful retreat. The spare aesthetic of the Asian collections in these galleries provides a refreshing antidote to the bloated sense of ‘too much’ that results from a steady diet of the larger Smithsonian museums.
On the other side of the Haupt Parterre, brick paths wind through a series of small ornamental trees and plantings in front of the Arts & Industries Building. This is one of the lesser-visited Smithsonian Museums, and, in truth, there isn’t much to draw the casual visitor inside, but the area just outside the side entrance is charming, with 19th-century benches set in shady corners and small fountains tinkling in the sunshine. Birds gather here to bathe in the granite channels of water. It is, in my estimation, one of the nicest spots on the Mall.
Of course, now that I think of it, there are several other spots that vie for ‘favorite’ status. One is the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, wedged in a narrow passage between the Hirschhorn Museum and the Arts and Industries Building. (Washington is rife with places named after wealthy donors, as you may have noticed, but this is better than naming everything after Ronald Reagan, which is another unfortunate tendency.)
The Livingston Garden has a sinuous charm, with serpentine paths that make the most of the narrow strip of land between the two buildings. It invariably has a few entertaining botanical oddities, that give rise to "Gee, what’s that?" comments from passers-by. Intensively planted with an unmatched diversity of plants, this is another choice spot on the Mall with a wonderful ‘tucked away’ feel.
There is a rose garden (The Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden, to be precise…yes, another donor) in front of the Arts & Industries building, but I have to confess that I’ve never cared for formal rose gardens at all. Roses have to be combined in a more naturalistic setting to have the least bit of charm for me, and, besides, there’s no ‘out of the way’ quality to this patch of intensely colored, much-pruned, sprayed, and pampered floribundas.
There is a Victory Garden on one side of the American History Building, and the Heirloom Garden runs along all sides of the building, but these gardens, to my mind, suffer a bit from the attempt to educate. There is nothing more depressing than a garden that has palpable designs on you, and so I make no further commentary on these well meaning but essentially dull affairs.
A garden which is beginning to come into its own, in terms of plantings, is the Sculpture Garden set between the Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery’s West Building. (I might add, too, that the wisteria vines that bloom in the spring along the front of the National Gallery are, to my mind, the most spectacular plants on the Mall. Yes, I even prefer them to the much-vaunted cherry trees.) Where was I? Oh, yes, the Sculpture Garden.
Now, I have to say up front that some of the sculptures in the Sculpture Garden hold no appeal for me whatsoever. Other pieces, such as Roy Lichtenstein’s optically tricky ‘house’ and Calder’s boisterous abstract ‘horse’ are utterly charming. But in the summer the thing that attracts me here are the masses of white-flowering shrubs and small trees, particularly Hydrangea paniculata and crape myrtles, no doubt some wonderful hybrids from the National Arboretum. I do love a white garden – I do, I do, I do – having been smitten by Vita Sackville West’s white garden at Sissinghurst decades ago. I’ve been an utter ‘white’ devotee ever since.
It takes a certain skill and panache to carry off a white garden, though, and in the case of the Sculpture Garden, the designer has wisely not attempted an all-white scheme. No. This wouldn’t work with the yellows, blues, and reds of the surrounding artwork. But, somehow, it still has the pristine feel of a ‘white garden.’
There is another sculpture garden, which I think is a bit more of a success in terms of actual sculpture, in front of the Hirschhorn Museum. Plants are really secondary to sculpture here, but there are some lovely witch hazels and tulip magnolias that are particularly fine backdrops in the late winter and early spring when not much else is happening horticulturally. The Hirschhorn garden is divided into six separate rooms and feels ‘sunken’ beneath the Mall, though really it is the surrounding walls and position of the Hirschhorn on higher ground that gives this illusion. This is a lovely place to come in the winter, when snow decks the burnished black Miro sculpture and there are few people out braving the chill.
Did I say anything about insects yet? Well, you knew it was only a matter of time. There is a delightful Butterfly Habitat Garden alongside the Natural History Museum, set along a narrow passageway that unfortunately is right next to the 395 entrance tunnel so that the sound of traffic is quite relentless. But it is a noble effort, nonetheless, and I’ve spotted a surprising number of butterflies here, as well as fat, saucy mockingbirds who no doubt make mincemeat of whatever flies, buzzes, or flutters through the area.
Mockingbird in the Butterly Garden
These beautiful outdoor spaces provide just the respite needed for visitors to the Mall. When your mind is weary and your feet are sore – and I assure you, they will be if you attempt more than one Smithsonian museum in a single day – seek out these tranquil ‘garden rooms’ to escape the bustle of downtown Washington.
Insider Tip: Free jazz concerts are held every Friday evening from 5 to 8 during the summer in the National Gallery's Sculpture Garden. Bring a blanket to sit upon or cool your feet in the large circular fountain, if you like, but coolers or brought-in alcoholic beverages are not permitted. However, you can purchase a light meal or refreshments from the rather nice Pavilion Café if you’re looking to make a dinner connection or would simply like a glass of wine.