Diplomatic Pouch / June 20, 2012
By Larry Luxner
For a few days last month, a lavish white tent sprouted like a giant mushroom in the middle of the long green rectangle known as “America’s front lawn.” Underneath this enormous tent, some 500 people gathered for drinking, dining and dancing May 5 as part of festivities to raise money to restore Washington’s once-pristine National Mall to its former grandeur.
The Fourth Annual Ball on the Mall — sponsored by the nonprofit L’Enfant Society — followed a lunch two days earlier under the same tent attended by 1,200 people. Sponsorship support for the black-tie affair was up 35 percent this year, with the two events together generating just over $2 million.
“Over the past years, our annual benefit luncheon alone has raised approximately $7 million to support the National Trust’s efforts to restore and improve the National Mall,” said spokesman Joe Kildea.
While that may sound like a lot of money, it was a symbolic drop in the bucket compared to the $700 million the L’Enfant Society says is necessary to get the job done.
John E. “Chip” Akridge III, chairman of the Trust for the National Mall, says the ambitious project is long overdue, considering the trampled grass, crumbling sidewalks, algae-filled water and rusting statues which have led some commentators to nickname the park America’s national eyesore.”
“The National Park Service has been underfunded by Congress to the tune of $9 billion over the last 30 years. This park’s share of that is $400 million,” Akridge told the Diplomatic Pouch.
At the same time, he said, “attendance at the park has spiked to 25 million people a year — more than the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone combined. The park wasn’t designed for that many people. There’s not enough restroom facilities, not enough paths wide enough to handle the crowds. It’s loved to death.”
To meet current demand, some $300 million in infrastructure improvements are immediately needed — and it’ll take five to seven years to get all those improvements in place. “Public consciousness is growing,” Akridge said. “Once people know there’s a problem on the Mall, they say it’s not acceptable.”
The elegant $350-a-plate dinner attracted a generally youthful crowd, eager to dance the night away. But it was the earlier $500-a-plate luncheon that brought Washington’s diplomatic corps out in full force, with representatives of some 50 foreign embassies in attendance.
“The diplomatic response to this has been extremely strong,” said Akridge, whose company constructs office buildings in the Washington area. “The ambassadors of France, Italy and Mexico — who were our last three diplomatic chairmen — all gave impassioned speeches about why the ideals of democracy are so important for the rest of the world. It’s been very moving to me that the diplomatic community has such a strong interest in this project.”
In addition, he said, both the House and the Senate leadership have been supportive of the Trust’s goals — regardless of party affiliation. The Trust’s National Capital Campaign aims to raise half of the necessary $700 million, with the agreement that the federal government will contribute the other $350 million.
Corporate sponsors for the ball included TimeWarner Inc., HBO and Verizon,
While the ball’s honorary co-chairwomen — Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager — didn’t attend — the 43rd president’s daughters did send a note, which was read to the adoring crowd.
“We welcome you to this year’s fantastic event and wish we could have joined you tonight,” said the note. “We both treasure the National Mall, which holds a special place in our hearts. Our family has many happy memories of time spent on the Mall, and we send a special thanks to our friends at the L’Enfant Society. Thank you all for everything you are doing to ensure that the National Mall remains a national treasure.”
The Mall itself takes up only 146 acres of real-estate, spanning 1.9 miles from the steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. But within its boundaries are some of America’s most cherished landmarks, including the Washington Monument, the National Museum of American History, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Reflecting Pool.
It also hosts annual events such as the National Cherry Blossom Festival to the Capitol’s annual Fourth of July fireworks, and has been the venue for historic gatherings ranging from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech to Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration, which drew more than two million people.
Last September, the Trust announced an open competition for a redesign of the spaces on the National Mall now occupied by Union Square, Sylvan Theater and Constitution Gardens. The winners — Rogers Marvel Architects & Peter Walker and Partners; OLIN+Weiss/Manfredi, and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol & Davis Brody Bond — were announced May 2, with the three designs displayed on large color panels during the Ball on the Mall.
In thanking those who attended the ball, Akridge said this year is a “real turning point” for the Trust.
“Quite simply, we could not have gotten to this point without you,” he said. “So I’m asking that you take an inventory of everyone you know and spread the word as far and wide as you possibly can about the work we’re doing here. Please educate you know about the needs of this sacred space.”
For more information, visit www.nationalmall.org.