Two Capitol Hill Area Landscapes: Looking Forward and Back

The Hill Gardener

Washington Monument and Tidal Basin in spring seen from FDR Memorial. Photo: Roger Foley

It takes a long time to build public landscapes in Washington, DC. With hearings and approvals required at every stage of the design process from commissions and agencies at all levels of government, design development can easily last over a decade. Construction can take years. But when projects are completed, DC residents, particularly those on the Hill, benefit more than most US citizens, with unparalleled access to some of the most significant designed landscapes in the country.

This column features two such ambitious landscapes: the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, along the Tidal Basin, completed in 1997, and the future National China Garden planned for the US National Arboretum.

Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halprin

The FDR Memorial and its designer Lawrence Halprin are featured in a current exhibit at the National Building Museum. The exhibit runs through April 16, 2017, and features more than 50 newly commissioned large-format photographs of the landscape architect’s work as it appears today. Exclusively included in the DC exhibit are original drawings, notebooks, and other artifacts from the Lawrence Halprin Collection at the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania and some of Halprin’s early drawings from Edward Cella Art+Architecture in Los Angeles. The show is organized and curated by the Cultural Landscape Foundation in collaboration with the National Building Museum. A 92-page catalog of the exhibit is available online and in print as well. See

Lawrence Halprin was born 100 years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y., and began his landscape architecture career in northern California in the late 1940s. He was a lover of cities and how people move through them. Together with his dancer/choreographer wife Anna Halprin, (still dancing and teaching at 96) he developed in the 1960s a graphic system of recording the movement of people, water, and nature through spaces, which he called “motation.” His landscape work was physical and experiential in its origins and always celebratory, never cerebral. Water played a key role in his work, which has transformed urban places like Seattle’s Freeway Park (1969-76) and Levi’s Plaza in San Francisco (1979-82).

Both of those projects were in design development when Halprin received the FDR Memorial commission in 1974. The memorial always relied on water despite many design modifications during the 20 years that passed until funding was secured. While a landscape architecture student in the early 1990s, I travelled to Campobello Island, site of FDR’s summer home. At that time the Victorian village public library there had an enormous leather-bound guest book in its entry. At random I flipped it open, only to find Larry Halprin’s unmistakable large, loopy signature on a page from the year 1978, surely an FDR reconnaissance trip for the artist. Nearly 20 years later the memorial was completed. How many of us could remain dedicated to a single creative project for so long? Lawrence Halprin died in 2009 at the age of 93. He told the New York Times that the FDR Memorial was “the apotheosis of all that I have done.”

If you haven’t already visited the 7.5-acre site you might enjoy it now when the bones of the space are unadorned by foliage, and then again in cherry blossom season. Visit the memorial first, then head over to the National Building Museum and see the Halprin exhibit.

The memorial is divided into four garden rooms, one for each term FDR was in office. In it are 10 cast bronze sculptures, 21 carved inscriptions, and always the flow of water, sometimes gently other times loudly cascading over the red granite, metaphorically carrying the narrative of the war years forward. See the National Park Service pages on the memorial at

The National China Garden for the US National Arboretum

Capitol Hill residents may forget that they’re less than two miles from the US National Arboretum’s 446-acre living landscape museum. Yes, you need to bike, bus, or drive there, but you live closer than anyone else and it’s worth it. It’s about to become much more worth visiting: a 12-acre Chinese garden and cultural center broke ground on Oct. 28, and Capitol Hill residents have a front-row seat to its development, projected to last nearly three years.

The National China Garden has been in the works since before 2004, when China’s State Forestry Administration and the US Department of Agriculture (which manages the arboretum) signed an agreement to establish the garden center. Congress authorized the gift of 12 acres of undeveloped Arboretum land in 2008. Local landscape architecture firm Rhodeside & Harwell included the future garden site in its 2008 master plan and is now working on development. The DC-based National China Garden Foundation was formed in 2011 to oversee the development, completion, and maintenance of the garden complex. The Chinese government has agreed to contribute the materials, construction, and furnishings for the project, at no cost to the US government.

If you’ve never seen a full set of landscape construction drawings, you’d be surprised at how unglamorous and technical they are. Imagine drawings and specifications including 22 traditional structures, various ponds, bridges, and many, many trees and plants done in both English and Mandarin. The effort is staggering. The project just received final approval from the DC Commission on Fine Arts and is scheduled for a final approval hearing from the National Capital Planning Commission in early December. When complete, the garden’s impressive backstory will be invisible to visitors.

For scale, consider that the Dumbarton Oaks gardens are 16 acres and the FDR Memorial is 7.5 acres. The National China Garden, at 12 acres, will be a world within a world in its arboretum home, and the largest of nine authentic Chinese gardens in North America. Its built features will be full-size, not scaled-down versions. Intensive workgroup meetings on plant selection are addressing the climatic similarities and differences between the DC Arboretum site and the historic south China city of Yangzhou, near the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province, known for its beautiful gardens and temples, which has provided the working design precedent for the project. The US National Arboretum will use as many plants as possible from its collections, and plants will come from commercial sources in the United States.

The garden will be comprised of walled gardens and pavilions situated around a large lake, which will have a garden floating in its center. The main built spaces will be the Ge Garden to the left of the main entry, composed of eight pavilions and several water features. A walkway around the lake will have a Peony Pavilion, water cascades, and a Floating Fragrance Hall. An urban forest will lead to an elevated Five Pavilion Terrace and White Pagoda, both overlooking the lake. Toward the south end will be a Zig-Zag bridge for fish viewing, a boat hall, and the Mountain House of Sliced Stones, with its own water features and bridges. The garden will be situated off the Arboretum’s Holly Spring Road. See the garden’s web page for more information:  

During the holiday season make time to enjoy these landscape treasures right at our doorstep.

The chaos and destructiveness of war are expressed with water and stone by Lawrence Halprin at the FDR Memorial. Photo: Roger Foley
This Chinese garden at the Huntington Library in Pasadena is farther away than the future DC National China Garden will be. Image: Cheryl Corson

Cheryl Corson, RLA, ASLA, is a local landscape architect and writer in private practice ( She respects her colleagues who work on large projects that take years to design and build. Cheryl’s new book, “Sustainable Landscape Maintenance for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” is available at

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