Landmark Places Are Special Spaces. Here’s What Preserving Them Takes

Looking to the future keeps landmark construction on a historic path. McKissack’s landmark construction practice helps keeps public spaces true to the past and sustainable for the future.
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What’s a trip without visiting a locale’s civic structures, museums, monuments or iconic buildings? Landmarks not only steep us in culture, give us historical context and strengthen our national identity, they attract and inspire millions of visitors from around the world.  Almost 24 million tourists come to Washington,D.C. annually for its poignant reminders of our nation’s history and exciting museums.

At McKissack, we’re proud to say we’ve had a hand in designing, building and restoring iconic landmark projects—especially our nation’s most visited monument, the Lincoln Memorial;the first tribute to a Black American on the National Mall, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial; and the fourth most popular Smithsonian attraction, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  

Landmark construction management is a major practice in our firm, and our decades of experience have brought us roles in some of the most moving cultural projects nationwide. These include the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago and the George H.W. Bush Library Center. Special care in planning these singular public spaces makes them true to the past, effective for the present and sustainable for future generations.

Vaulting to Prominence: McKissack’s Landmark Construction Origins

United States Main Treasury Building

McKissack’s introduction to landmark projects came in 1996, when the historic U.S. Treasury Building sustained substantial fire damage.  Among its revered, iconic public spaces was the cash room that has been used for formal receptions since the days of President Grant. Initially we oversaw fire recovery efforts and later provided program management services for the phased renovation of the entire 500,000-square-foot building that was completed in 2002.

We have been involved in other large public spaces, such as D.C.’s Walter E.Washington Convention Center, which we finished about the same time. But it was special to have a role in the Treasury Building restoration as it was the first time we worked on a national historic landmark.  How can you not love a building when its executive office has a floor-to-ceiling iron vault?

Another milestone in our landmark project practice came when we were granted design-build contracts for restoration and security improvements to the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.They were sole-source contracts that we were solicited for based on our expertise. Our work included designing roadway improvements and non-intrusive security upgrades for the memorials, as well as historic restoration and preservation on the Abraham Lincoln statue.  

These public spaces symbolize our nation’s values and reflect our diverse populace, regardless of political affiliations. They are cultural and inclusive rather than partisan and divisive, as well as truly moving. Take the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream”speech. Working on it was not only exciting, but an honor—which is the way we feel about every landmark project we undertake. Right now, our work with the George H.W. Bush Library Foundation elicits the same feelings for our team;politics are irrelevant when it comes to doing meaningful work on landmark projects.

They also take special expertise, and our skill set in executing landmark projects has increased over time as one landmark project had led to another. Thanks to our growing capabilities, we’ve had roles in site preparation for the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, and in preliminary planning of the Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower Memorial,which will be dedicated this fall on Independence Avenue in Washington.  

Guiding a Deliberative Process for Landmark Projects

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bookstore

Landmark projects take decades to nurture. For the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, we were in discussions with The Memorial Foundation years before the first shovel hit the ground. Congress authorized the project nearly 13 years after the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity first proposed the idea in 1984. President Clinton authorized the memorial in 1996, yet the dedication was 14 more years incoming.

In our design-build role on the landmark project, Ron Kessler and the McKissack design team was the architect of record in executing the winning concept, a figure of King emerging from granite blocks—in King’s words, "out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Consulting with the National Park Service, we addressed not only architecture but also the storm water and geotechnical needs of a special site—across the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Memorial.

Construction management is a thoughtful, meticulous process for a landmark project, whether newly built or painstakingly restored. There are two phases in the process–early conceptual or principal designs to work out the original ideas, and the construction drawings that the architect of record submits for permit review. In the District, both sets of drawings involve multiple check-ins, approvals and opportunities for public comment. For the MLK memorial we were involved at both stages.

The oversight for the MLK memorial, like all federally mandated civic spaces, is rigorous.

For the pre-construction designs, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts conducts an aesthetic review, a District of Columbia planning board applies historic preservation standards and the

independent National Capital Planning Commission keeps the agencies from working at cross purposes. Permits require more detailed design reviews and community engagement. The structure must also must meet federal preservation standards for materials and procedures.

Historic Places: Innovative Design for the Ages

United States Capitol Dome

The process can’t be rushed. Getting it right means listening to all stakeholders and being sensitive to their concern. For instance, during my time as the Chief Operating Officer at the Architect of the Capitol, our team led the restoration of the U.S. Capitol Dome—a powerful symbol of democracy around the world. We enlisted expertise from internal and external sources to be sensitive to the historic building’s original design when we restored it.  

Working on the Capitol Building was a true tribute to collaboration and invention thanks to the constraints it imposed. A case in point: the dome is made of cast iron, not stone as most assume. That’s because cast iron weighs less than stone and the National Mallis built on a wetland. Its decorative capitals sport flowers that each have many cast-iron parts, so each capital had 200 pieces we needed to evaluate and restore if necessary. Some we were able to clean and reuse, and some had to be recast in iron from 3D-printed molds. For example, when the Capitol Dome developed hundreds of cracks and simply welding them would break them apart, we developed a lock-and-stitch technique a mechanic might use on an engine block to preserve them. Then there are modifications for accessibility or other needs that emerge. Given the historical importance of the Capitol’s design, we had to do everything we could to preserve its original materials and design.

Our process at McKissack is equally conscientious and thorough; public spaces are constantly at risk due to their exposure to the elements, pollution and large crowds. The National Mall and its many landmark buildings are a casein point; these historic spaces see millions of visitors yearly. Landmark construction managers need to be creative and inventive to keep buildings sustainable through the decades.

Soon we’ll be visiting more of these civic treasures through virtual reality, digitized archives and innovative education programs. But the iconic buildings themselves are part of the country’s soul; they represent the country’s idealistic founding,winding journey and forward momentum. We cherish every opportunity to keep them ready to inspire new generations.

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