The Cultural Landscape Foundation "What's Out There Weekend" in Washington, DC, last Saturday, I decided to stop by the Smithsonian gardens afternoon tour. I was downtown anyway at the National Book Fest and decided even if I had been on several tours of Smithsonian grounds lately, I might be able to learn something new. Turns out I was the only taker for that 1:00pm time-slot. They had a few show up for the morning one, those being the smart folks who wanted to beat the sun and heat. Since it was just my tour guide, William J. Donnelly, Smithsonian Institution landscape architect (pictured here), and I, it was without guilt that I directed the tour to be of the only grounds on the National Mall I had never toured previously: the Hirshhorn Museum of modern art and its adjacent sculpture garden.
The museum and sculpture garden opened in 1974. Originally, the building was to be clad in pink granite and that would have softened its Brutalist style a bit. As with many projects, money ran out for that and also the plaza plantings. William pointed out the recent stone work upgrades on the museum plaza entrance area. Black granite replaces sections of textured concrete that have worn out. Pebble paths have been replaced with brick and other stonework. Pebble paths are a maintenance nightmare for high-traffic areas. Ramp access has also been added over the years to both the museum plaza and to the sculpture garden now allowing stroller and wheelchairs to enter both.
I wondered out loud why the sunken sculpture garden did not connect to the museum itself. (It is across the road on the Mall.) William said it did, but that there was a problem with vagrants using it and the tunnel connection quickly closed. He noted that there were talks to re-open that access point. I certainly hope they do and put that on a priority list. The disconnect between the two parts of the museum has always struck me as odd and unnatural.
The sculpture garden has several other problems, William noted. Among them, it is 15 degrees hotter down there than the rest of the Mall. We frequent visitors know just how hot and exposed the National Mall is on a normal summer day, imagine these windless gardens, especially before the newly planted trees had a chance to fill in!
One of the architect's original plans that never saw fruition was for a reflecting pool, echoing the one by the Washington Monument, to extend out from the Hirshhorn museum steps across the road and deep into the Mall. That was axed and instead there is a large water feature in the middle of the sculpture garden. I remember visiting as a kid in the mid '70s and getting yelled at by the guards for fishing coins out of that very fountain. They are just lucky I did not jump in too given how bleak and hot it was at that time.
As for the now filled-in trees in the sculpture garden, William said they are nearing the end of their stressed lives and may go soon in an overhaul of the entire garden's landscape of 4.5 acres and over 60 sculptures. Also, there are several retaining walls that are cracked and are in need of replacement as well. When that project is planned, we may find the sculpture garden plantings being re-thought. The garden landscape was originally designed as a calming green space. It has a limited plant inventory and not much in the way of color or flowers. Because the sculpture collection rotates, the grounds are not designed around particular pieces. They are kept "neutral" with flat, manicured lawns in most spaces. (Can you imagine having to weed-whack around a Rodin?)
I'll be curious to follow the plans of the garden renovation and see how it develops in coming years.