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Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape

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The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is “a great public space, as essential a part of the American landscape as the Grand Canyon,” according to architecture critic Paul Goldberger, but few realize how recent, fragile, and contested this achievement is. In Monument Wars, Kirk Savage tells the Mall's engrossing story—its historic plan, the structures that populate its corr The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is “a great public space, as essential a part of the American landscape as the Grand Canyon,” according to architecture critic Paul Goldberger, but few realize how recent, fragile, and contested this achievement is. In Monument Wars, Kirk Savage tells the Mall's engrossing story—its historic plan, the structures that populate its corridors, and the sea change it reveals regarding national representation. Central to this narrative is a dramatic shift from the nineteenth-century concept of a decentralized landscape, or “ground”-heroic statues spread out in traffic circles and picturesque parks-to the twentieth-century ideal of “space,” in which authority is concentrated in an intensified center, and the monument is transformed from an object of reverence to a space of experience. Savage's lively and intelligent analysis traces the refocusing of the monuments themselves, from that of a single man, often on horseback, to commemorations of common soldiers or citizens; and from monuments that celebrate victory and heroism to memorials honoring victims. An indispensable guide to the National Mall, Monument Wars provides a fresh and fascinating perspective on over two hundred years of American history.


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The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is “a great public space, as essential a part of the American landscape as the Grand Canyon,” according to architecture critic Paul Goldberger, but few realize how recent, fragile, and contested this achievement is. In Monument Wars, Kirk Savage tells the Mall's engrossing story—its historic plan, the structures that populate its corr The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is “a great public space, as essential a part of the American landscape as the Grand Canyon,” according to architecture critic Paul Goldberger, but few realize how recent, fragile, and contested this achievement is. In Monument Wars, Kirk Savage tells the Mall's engrossing story—its historic plan, the structures that populate its corridors, and the sea change it reveals regarding national representation. Central to this narrative is a dramatic shift from the nineteenth-century concept of a decentralized landscape, or “ground”-heroic statues spread out in traffic circles and picturesque parks-to the twentieth-century ideal of “space,” in which authority is concentrated in an intensified center, and the monument is transformed from an object of reverence to a space of experience. Savage's lively and intelligent analysis traces the refocusing of the monuments themselves, from that of a single man, often on horseback, to commemorations of common soldiers or citizens; and from monuments that celebrate victory and heroism to memorials honoring victims. An indispensable guide to the National Mall, Monument Wars provides a fresh and fascinating perspective on over two hundred years of American history.

30 review for Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape

  1. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    "Monument Wars" tells the story of the National Mall in Washington DC, from the original plan by Pierre L'Enfant to the establishment of such monuments as those for the Vietnam Veterans and Franklin Roosevelt (but it was published before the Martin Luther King Memorial was developed). The Mall has undergone many changes since the original plan. As recently as the late 1800s, it had more of the look of a wild forest than the manicured space surrounded by stately museums that we see today. As thos "Monument Wars" tells the story of the National Mall in Washington DC, from the original plan by Pierre L'Enfant to the establishment of such monuments as those for the Vietnam Veterans and Franklin Roosevelt (but it was published before the Martin Luther King Memorial was developed). The Mall has undergone many changes since the original plan. As recently as the late 1800s, it had more of the look of a wild forest than the manicured space surrounded by stately museums that we see today. As those changes took place, monuments and memorials were planned from the west side of the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial - and almost every one of them had detractors who fought for changes, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. It is a great story!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Carol Mcgarry

    and now I need to go back to the Mall and rethink what I see there

  3. 4 out of 5

    Adrienne

    To quote Donald Trump, "nobody knew this stuff could be so complicated!" But in all seriousness, the many people, groups and ideologies competing for space and prominence on the Washington Mall proved to be much more nuanced and complex than I had ever imagined. It helped that this book was extremely readable and only took me about 6 hours to read in total. Kirk Savage writes eloquently, too, which makes reading that much more interesting. To quote Donald Trump, "nobody knew this stuff could be so complicated!" But in all seriousness, the many people, groups and ideologies competing for space and prominence on the Washington Mall proved to be much more nuanced and complex than I had ever imagined. It helped that this book was extremely readable and only took me about 6 hours to read in total. Kirk Savage writes eloquently, too, which makes reading that much more interesting.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Joanna

    I have been searching for a while to find a good book on the development of the mall in Washington, D.C. While it was a little dry, the book gives a good history of the way memorials have been built and developed in our nation's capital. I have been searching for a while to find a good book on the development of the mall in Washington, D.C. While it was a little dry, the book gives a good history of the way memorials have been built and developed in our nation's capital.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen Hulser

    Fabulous consideration of changing attitudes towards monuments, memory and public space. Savage studies changes on the National Mall, and underlines how trees, gardens and park spaces once enjoyed for picnicking and strolling were razed to create abstract open spaces, comprehensible only from a helicopter, or via armchair theories. Savage's eye for detail is acute, and he continually says fresh and exciting things about the most familiar sites on Washington Mall. He is most original in his analy Fabulous consideration of changing attitudes towards monuments, memory and public space. Savage studies changes on the National Mall, and underlines how trees, gardens and park spaces once enjoyed for picnicking and strolling were razed to create abstract open spaces, comprehensible only from a helicopter, or via armchair theories. Savage's eye for detail is acute, and he continually says fresh and exciting things about the most familiar sites on Washington Mall. He is most original in his analysis of the shift from public ground to public space, underlining how the spatial turn from ground and surface to abstract vista has had enormous consequences for our common areas, which is is hard NOT to call "public space." His grasp of the national politics behind the various constituencies advocating changes in this strange collective space is matchless. If it weren't so heavy, I would call it the one indispensable book to stuff in your backpack for reading during the next interminable demonstration on the Mall. It's a great antidote to the tedious, empty Mall, as you are forced to thread your way around the clunky, old-fashioned WWII memorial plunked in the way of everything, flanked by riot police on the superhighways flanking the fried and baking lawns that lack all shade due to decisions you can read about under the glaring sun, as your skin crackles with the ultra violet burn that is the not so abstract effect of the modernist treeless vacuum.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    A fantastic overview of the politics, emotion, and philosophy of DC's monumental core. Savage, the author of the fantastic Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, provides a comprehensive account of the development of the National Mall in the late 19th century. He spends a decent chunk of the book exploring L'Enfant's plan for the city and the Washington Monument while breezing through monuments built after the mid-1930s. Although initially disa A fantastic overview of the politics, emotion, and philosophy of DC's monumental core. Savage, the author of the fantastic Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, provides a comprehensive account of the development of the National Mall in the late 19th century. He spends a decent chunk of the book exploring L'Enfant's plan for the city and the Washington Monument while breezing through monuments built after the mid-1930s. Although initially disappointed that the Washington Monument, kind of a dull fixture in the DC skyline compared to the Jefferson or Lincoln memorials, formed a central part of the book, Savage's analysis convinced me of its incredible importance to the Mall's appearance today. The book is well illustrated (although entirely in black and white), important given that many of the statues he discusses are not particularly famous. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in urban planning, memorial practices, 19th and 20th century history, or museum studies.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Analysis of the monuments allowed to be placed on the national mall as it developed as patriotic sacred space, most fascinating then it deals with the monuments removed (important enough to inspire fund raising and a statue, but quickly forgotten or cringe-worthy later), relocated (the Titanic memorial) or fortunately never built (the Daughters of the Confederacy Mammy statue didn't raise enough money). It concludes with the controversy over the Vietnam memorial and how vehemently it was despise Analysis of the monuments allowed to be placed on the national mall as it developed as patriotic sacred space, most fascinating then it deals with the monuments removed (important enough to inspire fund raising and a statue, but quickly forgotten or cringe-worthy later), relocated (the Titanic memorial) or fortunately never built (the Daughters of the Confederacy Mammy statue didn't raise enough money). It concludes with the controversy over the Vietnam memorial and how vehemently it was despised, and how we've evolved our conception of what war memorials should look like and function, with the WWII memorial as a comparison. The book was published just as the FDR memorial was being changed to include the wheelchair and before the MLK memorial was completed, so there is an open ended argument about the future of this public space to be considered by historians and public history folks.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Michael Chornesky

    I have little to add to many of the reviews below on this book. It is the definitive history of how the National Mall evolved geographically, architecturally, landscape-wise, and as a source of national perception-- a place where an American identity was constructed and changed over time. The book can be a slow read at times, but understanding the failed early past of the Nation's Capital and how it was reflected in the first century of the Mall's existence (or lack thereof) is an important piec I have little to add to many of the reviews below on this book. It is the definitive history of how the National Mall evolved geographically, architecturally, landscape-wise, and as a source of national perception-- a place where an American identity was constructed and changed over time. The book can be a slow read at times, but understanding the failed early past of the Nation's Capital and how it was reflected in the first century of the Mall's existence (or lack thereof) is an important piece of context often missing from more laudatory stories of Washington's past. Similarly, the relationships posited between art, architecture, and a sense of national self in these places is unparalleled. The sources and stories are fantastic. In short, if you've been looking to read about American identity, Washington D.C., art and architecture, public history, any of these things really-- this is your book. An important contribution to an often overlooked subject.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Warren Perry

    Savage works his way across the National Mall investigating the history and the rationales behind the establishment of our greatest monuments. One of the questions he asks is: how many monuments are enough? His conclusion is a little weak-- he proposes a moratorium on monuments for a decade or so until we have had some time to get a better picture of where this development is headed and what is important enough to commemorate. His writing is lucid, his research is keen, and he has a fine lens on Savage works his way across the National Mall investigating the history and the rationales behind the establishment of our greatest monuments. One of the questions he asks is: how many monuments are enough? His conclusion is a little weak-- he proposes a moratorium on monuments for a decade or so until we have had some time to get a better picture of where this development is headed and what is important enough to commemorate. His writing is lucid, his research is keen, and he has a fine lens on the bigger moments of the National Mall's history. His summary of the Washington Monument's creation is excellent and it gives us a wonderful view of the jockeying about inside arts commissions and the folleys of public aesthetic practice.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Clifford

    Many visitors to Washington, DC do not realize that until the early part of the 20th century the national mall was wooded and filled with gardens, winding paths, and statuary. This important book explores the shift in the view of monuments and memorials from the 19th century concept of "ground," with heroic statuary spread around the city--something to be viewed--to the 20th century concept of memorials as "space," something to be experienced. Published by the University of California Press, thi Many visitors to Washington, DC do not realize that until the early part of the 20th century the national mall was wooded and filled with gardens, winding paths, and statuary. This important book explores the shift in the view of monuments and memorials from the 19th century concept of "ground," with heroic statuary spread around the city--something to be viewed--to the 20th century concept of memorials as "space," something to be experienced. Published by the University of California Press, this is a scholarly book, but very accessible. An insightful work on the semiotics of the role of "monuments" in American culture.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Washington Post

    This superb study of monumental Washington traces how changing attitudes about our heroes are reflected in stone and space. “Washington’s plans and monuments aspire to represent the essential America, but as they take shape on the ground, they become enmeshed in the complex realities of a living America. It is this interplay of aspiration and practice that makes the memorial landscape come alive, for in that interplay the landscape ceases to be a mere symbol of America and becomes an actor in the This superb study of monumental Washington traces how changing attitudes about our heroes are reflected in stone and space. “Washington’s plans and monuments aspire to represent the essential America, but as they take shape on the ground, they become enmeshed in the complex realities of a living America. It is this interplay of aspiration and practice that makes the memorial landscape come alive, for in that interplay the landscape ceases to be a mere symbol of America and becomes an actor in the nation’s drama. Not only do the monuments of Washington retell the story of the nation but in certain times and places they change the national history itself.”

  12. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    Kirk Savage details the history of the National Mall, from the beginning design and vision of Pierre L'Enfant to the construction of more recent monuments like the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Savage explores how the Mall has been shaped by various visions of how to remember major events and people. Some like the Washington Monument have changed the way the Mall has not only been used, but how it's constructed. One of my favorite parts of the book is the relationship Kirk Savage details the history of the National Mall, from the beginning design and vision of Pierre L'Enfant to the construction of more recent monuments like the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Savage explores how the Mall has been shaped by various visions of how to remember major events and people. Some like the Washington Monument have changed the way the Mall has not only been used, but how it's constructed. One of my favorite parts of the book is the relationship between the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Grant Monument and the creation of a national narrative from one side of the Mall to the other.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jordan

    A Fascinating book that is both informative and easily accessible in its language. Savage takes the reader through the full history of Washington D.C. and the National Mall. Starting with George Washington, Savage traverses the complex and sometimes controversial history that is America's relationship with memorializing its past and ends with a discussion of September 11th. Over the course of 300+ pages, Savage provides 127 images (many of which he took himself) to add the visual connection that A Fascinating book that is both informative and easily accessible in its language. Savage takes the reader through the full history of Washington D.C. and the National Mall. Starting with George Washington, Savage traverses the complex and sometimes controversial history that is America's relationship with memorializing its past and ends with a discussion of September 11th. Over the course of 300+ pages, Savage provides 127 images (many of which he took himself) to add the visual connection that his writing desires. Recommend it for all readers. Highly recommend it for anyone planning on visiting the National Mall.

  14. 5 out of 5

    B

    Ultimately, it falls short of really being the ultimate book about the Washington, DC landscape. Savage has clearly thought hard about a series of dimensions relating to the monuments. But it does not seem like there's a real through-line in the book. First, it's about whether monuments should be placed at all, then it's about public space vs. public grounds, and then it's about the Vietnam Memorial and contrasting everything to it. It could have used some more global thoughts, I think, as well Ultimately, it falls short of really being the ultimate book about the Washington, DC landscape. Savage has clearly thought hard about a series of dimensions relating to the monuments. But it does not seem like there's a real through-line in the book. First, it's about whether monuments should be placed at all, then it's about public space vs. public grounds, and then it's about the Vietnam Memorial and contrasting everything to it. It could have used some more global thoughts, I think, as well as more detail about things that weren't the focus. It's a very good book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Timothy

    The book takes us from the founding of Washington D.C. intended to be a living monument to the founding fathers, through the controversy surrounding the World War II memorial. The author has done some fascinating work on the debates, deceptions, and delays that accompanied most monuments in Washington, which until the 1930s was a very different city than the one contemporary vistors take for granted. Can be read as a whole or just pick a chapter.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Courtney Homer

    Fascinating story of the monuments of DC. I'm not sure I could recommend it to someone who doesn't live here or have a deep love of the place, though the ample photographs are helpful. But as a transplant to DC, Savage brought to life the stories behind the monuments and controversies surrounding the spaces we today take for granted. I've passed so many statues and squares without thinking about their story; MONUMENT WARS was illuminating. Fascinating story of the monuments of DC. I'm not sure I could recommend it to someone who doesn't live here or have a deep love of the place, though the ample photographs are helpful. But as a transplant to DC, Savage brought to life the stories behind the monuments and controversies surrounding the spaces we today take for granted. I've passed so many statues and squares without thinking about their story; MONUMENT WARS was illuminating.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    Fascinating! Amazed at the things that politicians fought about concerning sculpture, architecture, and landscaping! Did feel the author showed his own biases when he started writing about creations in the last fifty years; he was much more objective writing about earlier history.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jeramey

    Incredibly insightful look at the National Mall and how it came to be. Wish I had read it before my recent trip to DC, not immediately after. Title is a bit deceiving, as it's not as much about the fight between monuments, but the origins and evolution of the mall. Incredibly insightful look at the National Mall and how it came to be. Wish I had read it before my recent trip to DC, not immediately after. Title is a bit deceiving, as it's not as much about the fight between monuments, but the origins and evolution of the mall.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Gina

    This was also a great book for a grad class. I learned quite a lot about the National Mall, and how monuments have been interpreted throughout history. I want to buy this for my personal collection!

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sherri Anderson

    This would have been a good book to read before we went to DC. It was very interesting reading about how the monuments went up and how the designs were created. I need to go back so that I can look at the monuments the way the artist created them.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Allison

    Fascinating read about the history of monuments in DC.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Exhaustive account of the history and development of the Mall.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Matt Jex

    There’s a lot of dead white dudes honored in this town

  24. 5 out of 5

    William

    Excellent dialectic on monuments and memorials → explores how power interplays with collective memory to create the National Mall that we see today.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Gyewon

    Kirk...

  26. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    Nothing beats Grant on a rainy day.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ben Wheeler

  29. 5 out of 5

    Meredith

  30. 4 out of 5

    Tracy

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