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New Latino Museum Has Mall Shook Up
Proposed museum scouts for space at four sites on the National Mall
The Forrestal Building, which currently houses the Department of Energy but could be replaced with part of the National Museum for the American Latino.
M.V. Jantzen

With the 2004 completion of the National Museum of the American Indian and the forthcoming museum devoted to African American history and culture, it may seem like there’s no free space left on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One more museum is attempting to squeeze in, nevertheless. For the past two years, a Congressional commission has been studying the creation of a National Museum for the American Latino. And in July, having looked at more than 30 potential sites throughout the District, the commission announced its four top locations for the institution—all of them on the Mall.

The Whitten Building, home to the Department of Agriculture and another contender for the proposed museum.
Wally Gobetz/Flickr

Given the cramped quarters of the nation’s front yard, the four sites, which the commission intends to recommend to Congress this fall, all pose significant spatial and logistical challenges. The first site, adjacent to the Capitol, presents the smallest footprint of the four: 250,000 square feet, far smaller than the 400,000 square feet the commission has said would be optimal for the museum. In addition, the height of any new structure would be restricted by the 75-foot-tall Botanic Gardens nearby.

The second proposal would house part of the museum in the historic Smithsonian Arts and Industries building, with the rest incorporated on the site of the adjacent Forrestal Building, a Brutalist structure that currently houses the Department of Energy. Although there are not yet any plans to alter or demolish the building, it was included in part because the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) has been open about their hopes of seeing something different on the site. “It has been in our mind for a long time,” acknowledged Lucy Kempf, a planner with the NCPC. “The building partially blocks the view of the Smithsonian castle, and the view from the castle looking down to the waterfront.”

Another adaptive-reuse option would use half of the Whitten Building, a Beaux Arts structure that is home to the Department of Agriculture. The commission is considering taking over its west wing and adding a small entry pavilion to the building. However, NCPC planners and others have questioned whether such an adaptation would be appropriate. “Are we really contemplating altering just one wing of this Beaux Arts building, which is highly classical and symmetrical?” asked Judy Feldman, president of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.

The final site under consideration is next to the Washington Monument and across from the African American museum. Because the parcel can only accommodate 165,000 square feet, the museum would need to house most of its spaces in the Yates building across Independence Avenue, along with an underground annex connecting the two buildings.

Critics have asked the commission to reconsider off-Mall alternatives, given the constraints involved. “It’s like they’re taking a spot just to get one foot on the Mall,” Feldman charged. But the co-chair of the site-selection committee, Luis Cancel, reported that such a location is their constituents’ top priority. “That is the response we’ve gotten from all our public forums,” Cancel said.

Julia Galef