The Memorial: Site Selection & Design

From initial concept to formal dedication, building a national memorial in Washington, D.C., is a complex undertaking. Fortunately, the Adams Memorial Foundation has assembled a team with superb expertise in all aspects of the process.

In the following interview, Mary Kay Lanzillotta—a member of the Foundation’s board of trustees and a partner at Hartman-Cox Architects—describes the site selection process that is now under way. She also discusses what is most compelling to her about working on the Adams Memorial.

Q: ​What’s your role in creating the memorial?
A:​ I’m co-leading the site selection process, which will determine the location and footprint of the memorial and its proximity to other popular attractions and amenities such as public transportation. In collaboration with other team members, I also advise the board on design and programming.

Q:​ What background do you bring to these tasks?
A:​ I’ve worked on the preservation and restoration of memorials and other historic buildings in and around Washington for 20 years, including restoration of the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. My expertise includes an understanding of the review processes for building a memorial, which can be very complicated.

Q:​ Before we discuss site selection and design, can you talk about the Adamses? Who is your favorite family member?
A: ​Abigail. She’s just an incredibly strong woman and a great role model for any generation.

Q: ​Your second favorite?
A: ​As an architect, I feel a personal connection to Henry Adams for a number of reasons. A few years ago, I restored the exterior of the Hay-Adams Hotel, across from the White House, where many visiting dignitaries and celebrities stay. I spent 18 months crawling around the outside of the current structure, which stands on the site where Henry Adams and John Hay, who were great friends, built adjacent townhouses. The homes were designed by H.H. Richardson, who happens to be one of my favorite architects.

I also restored a museum here in town that has a replica of a well-known Saint-Gaudens sculpture, which Henry commissioned to honor the memory of his wife, Clover. The original stands in Rock Creek Cemetery on a plot that was designed by the architect Stanford White. So there’s another architectural connection.

Q: ​What’s the purpose of the Adams Memorial?
A:​ There has been a lot in the news about how American high school graduates don’t have a very good grasp of U.S. history. A primary goal of the memorial is to raise awareness of the important contributions that multiple generations of Adamses made to our country’s founding and early growth. Many people know something about John and Abigail and maybe a little about John Quincy or Henry. The public isn’t aware of the larger family legacy. The common themes that run through their lives are devotion to public service, the power of ideas, and doing the right thing for the nation, even when there are painful consequences politically or personally.

​And not just the men, but the women, too. Abigail enduring John’s long absences and Louisa Catherine trekking through Russia in the winter: Those are the kinds of personal sacrifices the women made for our country.

Q: ​How long does it take to get a memorial built in Washington, D.C.?
A: ​It can really vary. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial only took three and a half years from the time its creation was authorized by Congress to the time it was dedicated. But that’s unusually fast, I think due to the fact that so many people with a strong emotional interest were still alive. The Jefferson Memorial, which was championed by Franklin Roosevelt, took nine years: from 1934 to 1943. The FDR memorial took 25 years. Authorization to build the Lincoln Memorial was enacted shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, in 1865, and but it wasn’t dedicated until 1922.

Q: ​Where is the Foundation in the process of creating the Adams Memorial?
A:​ The momentum is building on several fronts. In 2010, key stakeholders attended a very inspiring design charrette, which was held at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. During that meeting, the team affirmed the goals for the memorial and clarified what kinds of spaces and programming will be offered. We are now in the midst of the site selection process. My understanding is that fundraising will soon begin in earnest.

Q: How important is site selection?
A: ​Very important. Visitors to Washington have so many choices of what to do. We want the memorial to be in an accessible location, but the site should also embody qualities that are specific to the Adamses. For example, John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House. If the Hay-Adams townhouses still existed, that would be a great location because of the family connection and the site’s adjacency to the White House.

Q: ​Where are you in the site selection process?
A:​ The National Park Service outlines 24 steps to building a memorial in D.C., so it’s a lengthy process. For site selection, the Foundation initially looked at 18 or 20 properties in and around the capital. We narrowed down that list, and last June we presented our top three choices to the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission (NCMAC), which reviews and approves site selection and design of memorials. We’ll be meeting again with NCMAC in mid-December and hope to get their approval for a site at that time.

Q: ​Is there a top contender?
A: ​(Laughing) Even if there were, I wouldn’t say! It’s a very competitive process.

Q: ​What happens after NCMAC approves a site?
A: ​We’ll submit our proposal to the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) and then the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), possibly for their January or February 2012 meetings. We may also need to visit with the D.C. Historic Preservation Office. Once we get through these meetings, we’ll have an approved site.

Later on, we’ll be back at NCMAC and the other agencies with the design for the selected site. We will also need to prepare an Environmental Assessment for the design.

Q: ​How will you choose a designer? Will there be a competition?
A:​ That hasn’t been decided. I assume an independent jury will evaluate design proposals and make a recommendation. The Foundation board has an architectural advisory panel, and they will certainly play a role. Ultimately, the board of trustees will make the final decision in consultation with key stakeholders.

Q: ​Without knowing anything about the actual site, what will be the major components of the memorial?
A:​ We envision a permanent space for each of the four Adams generations that will be highlighted. I think an interactive timeline or links to a website would be a great way to show the Adamses’ impact on our history. We’re also hoping there’s room for a garden. Gardens and libraries were important to John and Abigail, both in daily life and symbolically. They represented the balance between nature and human achievement.

Q: ​Once the Memorial is built, what kinds of programming do you envision?
A: ​There will be a big focus on families and children, and we’ll probably offer three different tiers of the visitor experience. The first tier will include the sixth- to eighth-graders who come to Washington on school trips every spring. As the U.S. moves toward a national curriculum for grades K through 12, this is a period when children study American history and civics.

​The second tier consists of families with children from ages 5 to 12. They typically hope to see many attractions. In a brief visit, they want an experience that engages the younger and older kids alike. In the third tier, you have intellectually curious adults who will spend two or more hours at the venue and really immerse themselves in the environment. The “Adams experience” will address the needs of all three groups.

Q:​ What do you mean by “the Adams experience”?
A: ​It means the programming will be more interactive and less didactic than many traditional venues. With young children, you always have to ask: What’s the best way to convey learning in a fun environment? The more senses you touch—for example through interactive exhibits—the better and more lasting the learning experience will be.

Q: ​Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who are closely linked in U.S. history. You’re a big Jefferson fan, right?
A:​ Yes. I went to the University of Virginia, which he founded. Among his many talents, Jefferson was a gifted architect. He designed the Academical Village, the original UVA campus, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

​I have a professional connection to Jefferson as well. On a recent project, I was fortunate to work with an exhibit designer to develop the timeline at the Jefferson Memorial.

Q: ​What’s most striking for you about the two men’s relationship?
A:​ I think our leaders today could learn a lot from the letters they exchanged later in life. They had been good friends, but when they became political rivals, they had a falling out that lasted for several years. Fortunately, they found a way to renew their friendship and resume their correspondence. I don’t think they ever saw each other again, but they continued to have this amazing dialogue. They showed that, despite disagreements, it’s possible to find a compromise in order do what’s best for the country.

Q: ​Any final thoughts?
A:​ What we build in stone will endure. It’s a lot of responsibility to figure out the best way to portray the Adamses for future generations. But the Foundation has assembled a team that is equal to the task.