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50 Great American Places

Essential Historic Sites Across the U.S.

Foreword by David McCullough

About The Book

A one-of-a-kind guide to fifty of the most important cultural and historic sites in the United States guaranteed to fascinate, educate, and entertain—selected and described by the former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

From Massachusetts to Florida to Washington to California, 50 Great American Places takes you on a journey through our nation’s history. Sharing the inside stories of sites as old as Mesa Verde (Colorado) and Cahokia (Illinois) and as recent as Silicon Valley (California) and the Mall of America (Minnesota), each essay provides the historical context for places that represent fundamental American themes: the compelling story of democracy and self-government; the dramatic impact of military conflict; the powerful role of innovation and enterprise; the inspiring achievements of diverse cultural traditions; and the defining influence of the land and its resources. Expert historian Brent D. Glass explores these themes by connecting places, people, and events and reveals a national narrative that is often surprising, sometimes tragic, and always engaging—complete with photographs, websites for more information, and suggestions for other places nearby worth visiting.

Sites you would expect to read about—in Boston, New York, and Washington, DC—are here, as well as plenty of surprises, such as the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, or Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, or the Village Green in Hudson, Ohio; less obvious places that, together with the more well-known destinations, collectively tell the story of America. For families who want to take a trip that is both educational and entertaining, for history enthusiasts, or anyone curious about our country’s greatest places, this book is the perfect guide.


50 Great American Places
Democracy is the great achievement of America. It is more than our form of government; it is synonymous with our national identity and our national character. Although we associate democracy with ideas like freedom and equality, there is one physical place in America where our values, ideals, and traditions are celebrated every day for the world to see—the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

A visitor can stand at the Washington Monument at the center of the National Mall and see almost all the major landmarks of this remarkable public space that spans more than three hundred acres and stretches out over two miles. To the east, there is the gleaming dome of the Capitol and the superb museums of the Smithsonian Institution. The National Gallery of Art and the United States Botanic Garden, with their unsurpassed collections of art and horticulture, also occupy prominent sites. Within a short walk, there is a stunning variety of architectural styles from the Smithsonian Castle by James Renwick Jr. to the National Gallery’s East Building by I. M. Pei.

The western half of the Mall includes a memorial landscape that honors the great leaders of our nation—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—as well as the men and women who have served in the major wars of our history. These monuments and memorials not only honor the people who have shaped our history but also reflect the creativity of artists, architects, and sculptors. From the classical designs of Henry Bacon (Lincoln Memorial) and John Russell Pope (Jefferson Memorial) to the powerfully abstract form of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the historical symbolism of the National Museum of African American History and Culture designed by Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, the Mall offers visitors a three-dimensional lesson in architectural history. Farther west across the Potomac are Arlington National Cemetery and George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.

The design of the Mall itself represents a major chapter in the history of urban planning in America. Although Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington included a broad open area from the Capitol to the Potomac River, the area we call the National Mall evolved slowly through the nineteenth century when the major projects included the Capitol, the first buildings of the Smithsonian, and Victorian-period landscaping. After the dedication of the Washington Monument (1888) Americans began to appreciate that the United States was emerging as a world power and that our national capital needed to reflect that power in its buildings, parks, and public places.

The single biggest influence on the design of the Mall was the 1902 plan of the Senate Park Commission, commonly known as the McMillan Commission for its chairman, Senator James McMillan of Michigan. The commission included leading architects and artists of the time—Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Charles F. McKim, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Their ideas have shaped the National Mall over the past century. Inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, the McMillan Plan recommended a broad green park flanked by trees and classical buildings, adding new land to the west of the Washington Monument and locating the Lincoln Memorial at the Mall’s western end. Although many elements of the Mall have changed in recent years, the central theme of a formal open space with open views from the Capitol to the Potomac and beyond has survived.

Since 1933, the National Park Service (NPS) has managed the National Mall, not an easy task given the need for a balance between public use, political initiatives, and preservation priorities. Every few years, proposals for new projects on the Mall generate passionate debate. Visitors to the enormously popular Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982), for example, are surprised to learn that Maya Lin’s design for this site was the subject of bitter criticism from some veterans’ groups and architects who wanted a more traditional representation of soldiers in action. Advocates for historic preservation resisted the decision to locate the World War II Memorial at the heart of the west Mall out of concern that it would intrude on the view between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Years after the dedication of this memorial in 2004, spirited arguments persist on the merits of new memorials and whether to limit new construction on the Mall.

Do recent memorials and monuments on the National Mall achieve the timelessness and inspirational impact of their predecessors? Professor Michael J. Lewis of Williams College has written, “Monuments, because they are public art, must be legible. It is because of their ability to transcend time by connecting to primal human activities—passage, gathering, shelter—that the best monuments never look dated.” On the National Mall, recent memorials to the Korean War, World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. and the proposed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower resemble museum exhibitions that emphasize storytelling and entertaining rather than honoring and remembering. Furthermore, the proliferation of museums and the prospect of building more in the future—however worthy their mission—run the risk of fragmenting our understanding of American culture and history as well as reducing much-needed open space.

Although monuments, memorials, and museums serve as our public memory and patrimony, what truly animates the Mall and makes it such a central symbol of democracy are the ways people—famous and ordinary—have used it as a setting to make history. Marian Anderson’s Easter Sunday concert in 1939, the anti–Vietnam War marches of the 1960s, and the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt in 1987 to commemorate lives lost in the AIDS epidemic took place here. The most famous demonstration was the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. With the Lincoln Memorial in the background, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed more than 250,000 people with his resounding “I Have a Dream” speech that defined the American civil rights movement.

With all this rich history, impressive architecture, and scenic beauty, the National Mall remains a place for people. Here, too, NPS faces the challenge of balancing physical maintenance and public access. Annual celebrations, such as the Cherry Blossom Festival and the Smithsonian Folk Festival, attract millions of people from all parts of the country and the world. Local residents enjoy playing softball and volleyball amid the formal public space. Throughout the year, people jog, bike, walk, and picnic. As NPS and preservationists determine the best long-term strategy, I hope that the Mall remains America’s front porch—open, accessible, and free—a worthy wonder of a democratic society.


The National Mall,

Smithsonian Institution,

National Gallery of Art,


George Washington’s Mount Vernon,

Arlington National Cemetery,

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, or

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site,

About The Author

Photograph (c) Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Brent D. Glass is Director Emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. A national leader in the preservation, interpretation, and promotion of history, Glass is a public historian who pioneered influential oral history and material culture studies, an author, television presence, and international speaker on public memory and museum management. He lives in Washington, DC.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 1, 2016)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451682038

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Raves and Reviews

"Author Brent D. Glass, director emeritus of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, is a public historian who believes that history should be made accessible to all. In this excellent book, Glass travels across the geographical breadth of the United States in his search for 'essential' historic sites. . . . It's a wonderful contribution to historical literacy, with a foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough."

– June Sawyers, The Chicago Tribune

“Brent Glass’s 50 Great American Places is a joy to read. Ripe with historical insight, this work reminds us how much of our national identity has been shaped by these historic sites. This book is a gift to all those who want to understand what it means to be an American.”

– Lonnie Bunch, Founding Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

“Brent D. Glass's 50 GreatAmerican Places is a bountiful treasure trove of essays about sanctifiedhistoric sites and cultural landmarks. It should be required reading forschools across America. Every page crackles with wisdom and insight.Highly recommended!”

– Douglas Brinkley

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    Photograph (c) Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
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