WASHINGTON (AP).- Lakeside gardens, dining rooms hovering over water, grassy new amphitheaters and underground pavilions at the foot of the Washington Monument have emerged as finalists in a design competition to overhaul neglected sites on the National Mall.
Designers and architects are dreaming big for a chance to improve what's sometimes called America's front yard. One vision calls for a garden "museum without walls" in part of the mall called Constitution Gardens. Another would "peel up" the landscape of the Washington Monument to reveal a large structure below ground with a theater and visitor amenities.
The Associated Press had an exclusive early look at the results of the competition conducted by the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall to help restore sites for the National Park Service. The finalists' concepts will go on display Monday through Sunday at the Smithsonian Castle and National Museum of American History.
Since last September, architects and designers have been competing for the chance to make over areas near the Capitol, Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens, which was once imagined as a pastoral park near the Lincoln Memorial but has since been left as a fetid pool with crumbling edges, surrounded by broken sidewalks. Each of the designs would bring major changes, adding amenities including food options and restrooms.
"The face of the mall is going to change quite dramatically," said Donald Stastny, an architect hired to oversee the competition. "If you're in Constitution Gardens, it's going to be cool, as opposed to 'How did I end up in this place?'"
The nonprofit National Mall group aims to raise $350 million from donors and corporations to help restore the mall, beginning with one of these sites. Former first lady Laura Bush joined the fundraising effort last year, and the group committed $875,000 to the design competition.
After sifting through entries from 32 teams, a jury picked four finalists for each of the three sites. Organizers are seeking public comment to help select a winner for each site in May. The group aims to build one of the designs, overhauling either Constitution Gardens or the Washington Monument grounds by 2016.
Midway through the competition, Congress voted to remove the third site from the Park Service's property, citing security concerns. Union Square, which includes the Capitol Reflecting Pool and a memorial to Ulysses S. Grant, had been envisioned as a space that could host demonstrations or protests, but Congress placed it under control of the Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police instead.
Still, the design competition will choose a winning design to pass along to congressional overseers of the site. One option calls for a new reflecting pool that would be a piece of art in itself. Ripples would emanate across the pool from the House and Senate sides of Congress. On the other side, a visitor could speak through a microphone to send ripples back toward their lawmakers as a symbol of public discourse.
For the Constitution Gardens site, the design possibilities offer significant improvements. The park with a lake framed by trees was dedicated in 1976, and a memorial was added a few years later on a small island honoring the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. The park was slated to have a restaurant as well, but funds ran out. In the past 30 years, its memorial has been mostly forgotten, and the grounds grew shabby.
Designers have proposed glass pavilions or buildings growing out of earthen berms, as well as performance spaces and cafes. They would open up views to the nearby Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial and link the park to one of Washington's main boulevards nearby, Constitution Avenue, to connect with its urban setting.
"So if you're standing in that area, you aren't just looking at the memorial, you're thinking about the memorial in a larger context of the city and the monuments that are around it," said Stastny, who previously managed design selections for the Oklahoma City and Flight 93 national memorials.
In comparison, the Washington Monument grounds are in better shape after recent security upgrades by the National Park Service, but a theater space has been left neglected for years. And there are few restrooms or food options for millions of people who visit each year.
Proposals in the competition are varied. One from New York-based landscape architect Diana Balmori calls for reshaping the landscape as a grassy bowl around an outdoor theater and adding a building with a garden roof to produce food for a restaurant below. Another design by New York-based Diller Scofidio Renfro and Hood Design, the landscape would be "peeled up" on one edge to serve as an outdoor theater and reveal a new underground structure.
"The whole intent is that the mall continues to be an evolving place," Stastny said. "The improvements at this point will carry us into the next evolution I think that's what a lot of the designers are feeling."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.