“Smithsonian Station”: The Metro Station that Almost Wasn’t

Smithsonian Metro Station
As thousands of people exited the Smithsonian Metro station this July 4th to attend the Folklife Festival or watch the fireworks, they might have taken for granted that such a heavily trafficked location would have a subway stop. But the Mall entrance came very close to not being built, and it took an extraordinary appropriation to ensure it was part of the system. Early plans for Washington DC’s Metro system included a station entrance on the National Mall near the Smithsonian’s museums, but in 1971 that entrance was eliminated.  There would still be a station at 12th Street and Independence Avenue, near the US Department of Agriculture building, but tourists using it would have to cross that very busy intersection to get to the Smithsonian.  The National Capital Planning Commission had rejected plans for a north Mall entrance to the Independence Avenue Station because they felt it would impinge upon the Mall view.  The Smithsonian and National Park Service expected them to offer alternatives, but without notifying anyone outside of the core Metro planning group, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) eliminated the Mall entrance and used that money for stations further down the line.

When they finally heard the bad news, the Smithsonian leaped into action filing a protest.  But WMATA replied that no one had commented on the change, so it had been eliminated.  The Smithsonian was joined by the National Park Service and Bicentennial of the American Revolution Commission in arguing that no one had been notified of a change to comment on. The three organizations pointed out that studies predicted some 15 million visitors per year to the Smithsonian’s museums on the Mall and the crucial role mass transit would play in moving tourists safely to and from their museum visits. The Park Service wished to reduce or eliminate automobile traffic on the Mall, so Metro access was necessary. They also wished to add a station at Arlington Cemetery. A strong coalition formed, and WMATA relented but said that the organizations would have to secure the funding for the station – a daunting task.

Aerial Photograph of the National Mall on August 10, 1996
Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley worked to garner support for the station in the US Congress, arguing that all the Senators and Representatives had constituents who visited Washington DC and would benefit from efficient, safe, and cost-effective transit.  He testified at Congressional hearings and wrote to numerous key members of Congress.  The Bicentennial Commission also lobbied hard, predicting increased tourism for the 1976 Bicentennial and afterwards.  On October 21, 1972, the 92nd Congress passed Public Law 92-517 which, among other things, provided $7,865,000 for “an additional entrance in the vicinity of the northeast end of the Smithsonian Station surfacing on the Mall south of Adams Drive,” as well as the Arlington Cemetery Station.  

The station formally opened on July 4, 1977. Metro General Manager Theodore Lutz presented Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Charles Blitzer with a "farecard" for inclusion in the National Museum of History and Technology (now National Museum of American History) transportation collection. The station’s opening coincided with the completion of 11.8 miles of rail between National Airport and the Stadium/Armory Station and the opening of the Arlington CemeteryCapitol South, and other stations along the “Blue” line.  Although the Smithsonian had noted that “timing is of the essence, if this station is to be opened in time to receive the onrush of visitors expected for the Bicentennial,” it was not completed in time for the celebration in 1976. However, it has served the Smithsonian and its many visitors well in the forty years since it opened, during national marches, presidential inaugurations, and the Smithsonian Birthday Party on the Mall in 1996.

Related Resources

Hearings on the Smithsonian Metro station, 1972

Legislation funding Smithsonian Metro entrance, 1977

Smithsonian Birthday Party on the National Mall, 1996, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Roderick Terry images of the 1995 Million Man March on the National Mall, 1995, National Museum of African American History and Culture  

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