One More for the Mall

One More for the Mall

After a contentious site selection process, the museum will stand just off the Washington Monument (at the site circled above), as the final structure to open on the mall.

Courtesy Smithsonian

After five years of site selection and preliminary planning, the Smithsonian Institution has begun looking for an architect to design the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, slated to open by 2016 in Washington. The museum will sit on a five-acre greenfield site at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street, about 800 feet northeast of the Washington Monument.

The 350,000-square-foot museum, which President George Bush signed into existence in 2003, and which received site approval in 2006, will be the Smithsonian’s nineteenth museum and the final structure to open on the National Mall.

“I want it to be really an almost sacred space,” said Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s president. “I want it to complement the Mall, but I don’t want it to be just another neo-classical building.”

COURTESY Smithsonian
Museum President Lonnie Bunch discusses the site.

The project has already drawn the interest of two of the nation’s top African-American-led firms, Davis Brody Bond and Devrouax & Purnell. Davis Brody Bond is teaming up with the British architect David Adjaye, who designed the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Freelon Group, an architectural firm based in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

Davis Brody Bond and the Freelon Group are also conducting a program study for the museum, which will be completed in October, that will detail the project’s exhibition, performance, and facilities requirements.

Speaking in the museum’s temporary offices south of the Mall, Max Bond, a partner at Davis Brody Bond and a prominent African-American architect, said that he intended his firm’s proposal to reflect both the power of the black experience and the centrality of that story to American history writ large. “The building is terribly important not just to the African-American community, but to America as a whole.”

Devrouax & Purnell, whose offices sit less than a mile from the site in downtown Washington, are responsible for a number of recent major projects around the capital, including the Washington Convention Center and Nationals Park, home of the city’s Major League Baseball team. Marshall Purnell, the firm’s design principal, is the current president of the American Institute of Architects and the first African American to hold that position. (Devrouax & Purnell declined to comment for this article, saying it was not yet prepared to discuss the project publicly.)

The project has been a long time coming. The idea for an African-American history museum was first proposed almost 100 years ago, and legislation establishing it was introduced in 1988. But the bill lingered for 15 years, in part because of vehement opposition from North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.

The site selection process was equally contentious, as groups like the National Coalition to Save Our Mall opposed adding yet another museum to what they considered an already overcrowded Mall. “They did not consider the Washington Monument or the Mall’s integrity” in selecting the Constitution Avenue site, said Judy Scott Feldman, chair of the coalition. Feldman said her group will now work with the museum to make sure the final design “minimizes the impact on the grandeur of the Washington Monument, one of whose best views is from 14th and Constitution.”