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The National Mall - America’s Front Yard

Airs Tuesday, July 12, 2016 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

The National Mall, looking east from the Washington Monument.

Credit: Courtesy of David Murdock

Above: The National Mall, looking east from the Washington Monument.

The National Mall, placed in very center of our nation’s capital, is a landscape unlike any other. Lined by some of the world’s finest museums and dotted with monuments to the country’s most revered figures, the National Mall draws millions of visitors each year. Most of them have only a vague sense of the struggles involved in creating this unique space. "The National Mall — America’s Front Yard" presents the surprising story of the Mall’s birth and evolution.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Isham Randolph

People enjoying the Tidal Basin on the National Mall.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Aqiyla Thomas

The area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument is a mixture of trees, pathways and open spaces.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Craig Zwolak

The sun rises over the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool in Washington, D.C.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Anisa Peters

The Lincoln Memorial, seen from the Washington Monument.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Stacy Zwolak

Several dozen cherry trees have been on the National Mall and Memorial Parks for more than a century.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Anisa Peters

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is engraved with more than 58,000 names of those who died.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Bill Gabler

Bruce Peteroy’s scrapbook, left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is one of the most complete portraits the Museum Resource Center has of the life of someone whose name is on the wall.

Using a mixture of contemporary and archival footage, state-of-the-art graphics and fly-over aerials, this program traces the Mall’s, and the country’s, development. From its conception in 1791 by French-born artist Pierre L’Enfant to its current status as one of the most familiar and cherished icons of our democracy, the story of the Mall mirrors the story of the United States.

“[H]alf of the American people will visit the National Mall in their lifetime,” says Caroline Cunningham of the Trust for the National Mall. “And it is a pilgrimage.” Adds historian Kirk Savage, “It’s where people come to figure out what the United States is all about. This is where, somehow, the core identity of this country can be found. Here in this one symbolic landscape.”

Today, the National Mall serves many needs — urban playground, historical touchstone, public forum. No other space in the world provides its citizens a place so well-suited and perfectly located to welcome them, inspire them and allow their voices to be heard.

“There’s only one place where you go to speak truth to power,” says Mike Smith, one of the co-founders of the NAMES Project, which brought attention to the AIDS epidemic. “There is only one place you go to air your grievances in a way that the whole country can engage in, and that’s the National Mall.”

But for decades, it seemed this grand vision for the Mall could never come close to reality. This program highlights the struggles over the years—both public and private—and the extraordinary people who made the Mall what it is today.

Among the highlights are:

The remarkable story of the Washington Monument, which survived financial ruin, the Civil War and a 24-year work stoppage to become the world’s tallest building. It remains the tallest freestanding stone structure ever built. A powerful earthquake in 2011 rocked the tower, resulting in two years of repairs.

The Lincoln Memorial, which resembles an ancient temple sitting on a hill but is really more like a skyscraper on stilts. This program documents the area lying beneath the structure, a vast open space that resembles a modern-day cathedral, and reveals the secret of the memorial’s construction.

The 1963 March on Washington, which marked a major shift in Americans’ use of the Mall. That one day changed the course of history and further established the Mall as a place where Americans could effectively make their voices heard.

The nearly 4,000 Japanese cherry trees that burst into bloom every spring. Behind the spectacle of the blossoms is a little-known story of disappointment and near failure. Now, thanks to National Park Service arborists, almost 100 of the trees have survived more than 100 years, twice the normal lifespan for trees of their kind.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, built in 1982. From the time it opened, the Wall inspired a spontaneous and surprising response from many who visited — leaving items at the base of the wall. This program presents the story of one item—a scrapbook left in 2013—that traces the life of a man whose name is on the wall.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was first brought to the National Mall in 1987 by a group of San Francisco advocates hoping to raise awareness about the disease that was wiping out their community.

Today, the Mall continues to grow and change. By some combination of accident and design, the Mall has become an ideal place for public protest, quiet reflection and joyous celebration.

"The National Mall — America’s Front Yard" ends with a flourish and a bang: the 4th of July on the Mall. Fireworks light up the monuments, the Mall’s open spaces and the faces of thousands of people gathered to honor America on her birthday.

Trust for the National Mall is on Facebook, Instagram, and you can follow @TheNationalMall on Twitter.

A production of National Geographic in association with Camera One Productions, LLC.

Preview

The United States National Mall, set in the heart of Washington, DC, is a place unlike any other on earth, and its history is equally fascinating. This special reveals the surprising and inspiring story of the Mall’s evolution. Premieres Tuesday, April 21, 2015, at 8 p.m. ET. Check your local listings.

Designing the Mall

The design of the National Mall involved converting tidal flats, forests and farmland into the major landmarks we see today. Designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant placed major landmarks on high points, placing the Capitol Building on the highest spot.

The Washington Monument

The construction of the Washington Monument, modeled on the obelisks of ancient Egypt, suffered setbacks and delays including the loss of private funding and approaching civil war. The dome of the U.S. Capitol suffered a similar fate, but President Abraham Lincoln fought to keep its construction going as a message that the Union would survive.

The Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial, designed by architect Henry Bacon, sits at one end of the National Mall. Key features include the long and high steps that lead inside the structure, a large statue of Lincoln sitting in a chair, and walls inscribed with his great addresses.

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