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Find garden gems along Washington’s National Mall

WASHINGTON — If the weather is perfect, with a gentle breeze and a few clouds in the sky to break the glare of the sun, then the National Mall is a lovely place. But look at how locals use it the rest of the year: People flock to benches along the edges, pedestrians and joggers tend to the shady paths under the trees, while people coming to visit the museums move promptly from the Metro to their destination, avoiding the Mall altogether.

The Mall can be beautiful, and it offers postcard views of the city’s most recognizable buildings. But it is also open, barren, exposed and terribly formal. It is a powerful landscape but not a charming one.

For charm, you must cleave to the edges of the great greensward, where there is a horticultural memory of what the Mall once was, and might have been. Clustered along the Mall and its surrounding parkland are small gardens. Some fill interstitial spaces, others are attached to museums or institutional buildings, and others are part of a new generation of memorials that have been redirected by planning rules off the Mall itself.

The best of them break with the early 20th-century imperialistic grandeur of the Mall to offer amenable urban escapes, quiet spaces with shade and a sense of leafy enclosure. And in that, they recall what much of the Mall looked like in the 19th century: A romantic landscape of trees, flowers, curving paths and carriage ways.

Today, these gardens feel like pockets of resistance. To understand their power, walk the Mall for a half-hour on a hot day, then duck into the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, which fills a narrow strip of land between the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Arts and Industries Building.

Sculptures, including Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dot-covered “Pumpkin,” at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Marvin Joseph/Washington Post

Opened in 1988, this space was slated to become a parking lot. But instead, it became one of the city’s most lovely hidden gems, a short, serpentine path of greenery that is the aesthetic opposite of the Mall. The Mall is straight and open, while this little parcel is full of curves and nooks. The Mall is monocultural, while the earth here teems with a diversity of plant life. The Mall focuses the eyes on a few big, symbolic architectural monuments, while the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden is all about the small details of organic life.

Across the wide expanse of Independence Avenue SW from the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden is Earth Day Park, its homelier twin along the axis of the Ninth Street Expressway. It is less green, less tended and more basic in its plantings, and the noise of cars is ever present. But it is land reclaimed from the nihilism of concrete and one is thankful for it, warts and all. The park also leads to Hancock Park behind the Federal Aviation Administration building, a tree-filled rectangle that wants some love, but is delightful, none the less, for being so hidden and so off the usual tourist’s track.

The older buildings along the Mall were often raised above street level, on plinths, a now out-of-fashion design idea that nevertheless encouraged the incorporation of garden spaces that stand apart from the civic topography. Some of these offer ideal escapes. Along the south face of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building are two large fountains, surrounded by garden enclosures. If you want to eat a sandwich, climb the steps and find space on one of the benches nestled in the embrace of the old, neoclassical building. The Mall and all its tumult will seem a thousand miles away.

The courtyard garden of the Freer Gallery of Art. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Some of the grander buildings along the north side of the Mall also offer green hideaways. Along Constitution Avenue from 19th to 23rd streets NW, are several gardens, some mere ornaments to the institutional facades they complement, but others genuinely inviting. The tone of National Academy of Sciences’ front yard is set by Albert Einstein himself, whose statue sits rumpled, and at ground level, in the southwest corner of its green space. On the other side of the front garden is a lovely outdoor arbour.

Some of these institutional front yards look onto one of the great, unrealized possibilities of the Mall, which is Constitution Gardens, an ill-tended and careworn park that was dedicated in 1976. There is a gentle rise and fall to the landscape, and a large, shallow lake. But the lake is filthy and the water is green, and the humble but evocative memorial to the signers of the Declaration of Independence is unkempt. There are plans to refurbish the park but nothing has happened yet.

The same is true for President’s Park to the north, which connects the Mall to the White House grounds. It could be one of the most beautiful places in the city but is now merely a wasteland of provisional security barriers.

It was a challenge to create the Mall, which required significant destruction of buildings, old trees and park land. Since then, and with only a few exceptions, the Mall has been kept open and the line of sight unobstructed. But, rather like swelling around a wound, parks have burgeoned along the great gash of green. There are even stretches of the Mall where you can walk between parks that are almost contiguous, and if you have an afternoon, it’s worth the challenge: See the Mall without stepping foot on it.

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