Essential Friends + Gateways: Trust For the National Mall, New Efforts To Save Our Icons

National Mall at night, copyright Stephen R. Brown

The Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol are key focal points of the National Mall. Photo by Stephen R. Brown, whose poignant and inspiring images of the Mall can be found in his books, Jewel of the Mall, World War II Memorial Book, and DC Photo Book.

The term “national park” has a kneejerk meaning to many—only the clued-in know how diverse “units” of the park system really are. Towering Half Dome in Yosemite National Park isn’t the only grand granite monument protected by the National Park Service—and you don’t even need to look beyond the borders of Washington, D.C., to prove it.

Nothing better conveys the diversity of the park system, or its transcendent importance to the nation, than the National Mall and Memorial Parks. This massive urban public space stretches two miles from the Lincoln Memorial to Union Square below the U.S. Capitol. It encompasses more than 700 acres and includes more than 150 specific memorials and historic sites.

The stirring monuments in this park are visited by more than 25 million people a year. Half of all Americans will visit in their lifetime.

A Monumental Movement

Even with global status, the Mall’s official “friends’ group,” the Trust for the National Mall, only got its start in 2007.

“We’ve always envisioned a twofold mission,” says Trust President Caroline Cunningham, “working side by side with the National Park Service to restore and improve the National Mall, and education.”

Both goals got off with a bang in 2007 when “we’d been in existence for six months and the Park Service asked if we could give $1.1 million to develop a new sign system for the Mall. At that point,” says Ms. Cunningham, “we had very few donors and didn’t even know if we could raise the money!”

The project involved more than just replacing signs.

“The Mall had become cluttered with signs from all these different agencies,” Ms. Cunningham says. “The idea was to take all that down, create an overarching approach with a single system that addressed the needs of the visitor, whether they were walking onto the Mall or whether they wanted to find something outside the Mall.”

The Trust raised the money, and working with the National Park Service and other agencies, re-conceptualized the signageby 2009. A year-and-a-half later the project was done.

A Mission From Sign Madness

Looking back, it’s apparent one of the Trust’s first initiatives actually sparked one of its most innovative programs.

“Maybe that’s why we’ve been successful,” Ms. Cunningham says. “Rather than dividing all the signs up between agencies, as in the past, we see things in an organic way, see things working together, through the lens of the visitor experience.”

Anybody who’s stood on a street corner on the National Mall trying to orient a map knows just how confusing these hundreds of iconic acres of bustle can be. The National Mall’s streamlined signage has helped, but the real service is all “those wonderful, yellow-clad volunteers in parks who serve as roving docents the Park Service and the Trust have added, people the public can trust to give them accurate information, a map, and even some history,” says Ms. Cunningham.

A Flash Of Insight

The Trust knew the National Park Service already had a successful and robust Volunteers in Parks (VIP) program based at many popular sites on the Mall. “Given the fact that the Mall is so spread out and the number of visitors so high, we partnered with the park to expand volunteer interaction with visitors beyond the specific locations of monuments,” Ms. Cunningham says.

The VIP Roving Docent Program was born early in 2012 with seed grants from the Boeing Corporation and the Bernstein Family Foundation. Taking a cue from the phasing out of agency-specific signs, the Trust and the park reasoned that “if we could train volunteers about the entire experience—the way the visitor actually interacts with the space—people would see it as one big place to enjoy,” Ms. Cunningham says.

The Park Service targeted the expanse between 3rd and 14th streets where site-based VIPs aren’t stationed. The docents “interact with guests at the Metro, where the majority of visitors arrive, and at bus drop-off areas. They’re greeting guests, sharing directions—or what’s going on at the Smithsonian.”

Ms. Cunningham says the goal was to, “make the Mall a much more integrated experience by knitting together disparate parts of the park.”

That’s a pretty lofty bar to set for volunteers but, says Ms. Cunningham, “The people we’re recruiting as docents are amazing, a tremendous group of dedicatedvolunteers.”

Five-Star Customer Service

Training is key. Each volunteer goes through a month-long program on four Saturdays for a total of 32 hours of instruction. Part of that is field training where docents interact with visitors. General safety training from the American Red Cross is another component. Representatives from the Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery of Art speak about art on the Mall and the symbolism of the iconic monuments.

The Trust’s president is particularly pleased that “existing VIPs are invited to attend the sessions if they wish more training. We’ve actually had some cross-pollination between the longtime place-based volunteers and the new docents, and that’s been tremendously helpful,” she says.

Best of all, the Trust has called on “one of our great sponsors,” Ritz-Carlton Hotels, “for customer service training,” says Ms. Cunningham. The upscale global hotel chain is renowned not only for its own cutting edge customer service—but also for the training that achieves it.

Personalized contact with a Roving Docent is just the start of the Trust’s efforts to support the park in visitor contact and education. New efforts about to get underway are heading into cyberspace.

A Park Service Birthday Initiative

The Trust is aiming high to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016. The Park Service prepared a National Mall Plan from 2006-2010 that selected five major areas in need of major improvement.

The Trust has targeted two of those projects for restoration—Constitution Gardens and the Washington Monument grounds at Sylvan Theater. A design competition for the changes was completed in 2011, and in May of this year, “we’ll start moving forward trying to get one substantially completed by 2016,” says the Trust’s president. “It’s going to be a tall order, but as soon as we get one project completed, we’ll turn to the next.”

Given that ambitious goal and the Trust’s youth, “we turned first to the places where it would be easiest to raise funds and connect donors to the park,” Ms. Cunningham says. “So far they’ve principally been corporations, foundations and people who have the wherewithal to contribute large sums to the park.”

Early success, she says, stems from the Trust’s “credibility as a new organization— based not only on great supportfrom National Park Service but also from the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.”

People, To Help The People’s Park

The fundraising net will get wider in 2013.

“It’s important to me personally to develop grass-roots giving,” Ms. Cunningham explains. “I very much believe this is the people’s park, so this fall, we’re going to launch a formal Friends of the National Mall program aimed at small donors.”

Part of the impetus behind the effort is the size of the problem. “The last time the National Mall saw an infusion of capital for its restoration was 40 years ago,” says Ms. Cunningham. “Imagine not investing in your home for 40 years? That’s where the Mall is now. If you look closely you can see how much damage there is and how much work is needed.”

The Trust for the National Mall has set out to both spotlight those problems and convince Americans how important it is to get involved and support the Mall’s restoration.

“The time is now,” Ms. Cunningham says, “to be sure that the next generation has the benefit of these beautiful icons.”

Coming Wednesday: Friends Of Acadia, Working On The Next 100 Years