Proposed stairs would mar Kennedy Center, critics say

Photo by Courtesy Arthur Cotton Moore
The 1987 Kennedy Center concept by Arthur Cotton Moore included by NCPC in its Legacy Plan
The 1987 Kennedy Center concept by Arthur Cotton Moore included by NCPC in its Legacy Plan

Local residents and one of Washington's best-known architects are sounding the alarm on a just-announced, fast-moving plan by federal authorities to add new stairways to the Kennedy Center that critics say would deface the iconic memorial to President John F. Kennedy.

The stairways, proposed by the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration, would connect the Kennedy Center to the river. While residents strongly support such a concept, they say the current proposal would amount to a disappointing retrofit that would "mar" the memorial in terms of scale and appropriateness.

The Park Service's preferred design involves two narrow stairways (Photo by: NPS/FHWA) The Park Service's preferred design involves two narrow stairways

"These stairs will  forever look like superficial little add-­ons, wholly out of character with the scale" of the Kennedy Center, said Arthur Cotton Moore, whose 1987 design for a broader, single staircase plaza was endorsed by the National Capital Planning Commission and included in its Legacy Plan for Washington.

"This haphazard design might as well be two rope ladders," said Frederic Schwartz, an attorney and Watergate resident. Some compared the design to "fire escapes."

Jonda McFarlane, center, with Jill Nevious, right (Photo by: The Georgetown Dish) Jonda McFarlane, center, with Jill Nevious, right
Besides disappointment with the scale and inappropriateness of the proposed stairs, residents say they would not adequately enhance the connection between the Kennedy Center plaza and the Potomac River -- a primary goal of the project. "It would be another attraction to the area if they would design the stairs properly," said Maria Vintro, a resident. But she worried that the narrow chutes currently "preferred" by NCPC would discourage pedestrian use.

"By turning away from the river, these narrow little stairs do not provide places to sit and enjoy the view, see the sunset, or watch the river's boat traffic, and its many regattas," Moore wrote.  By contrast, he said, the 1987 plan envisioned a broad staircase that would "be used as a grandstand for people who want to enjoy the increasing number of activities that are taking place on the river, plus a floating dock for water taxis and ferry boats bringing people to the Center," said Moore, a lifetime member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a planning advocacy group.

Councilmember Jack Evans said he endorses the broad stair plaza designed by Moore and favored by the residents. "That's the design everyone supports," said Evans. "I don't understand why the Park Service would be proposing something totally different after all the community input we've had."

A (Photo by: NPS/FHWA) A "Central Ramp" alternative under consideration reminds some of "The Jetsons."

"We've all been working on the Georgetown waterfront since 1987, and here we are about to see the Waterfront Park completed. We want to make sure the that this addition both serves the purpose of inviting the public in and also respects the grandeur of the memorial to John F. Kennedy," said Watergate resident Jonda McFarlane.  MacFarlane said the just-announced NCPC comment period ending March 14 could prevent proper public vetting of the Park Service/Federal Highway Administration proposal.

NPS and the FHWA, in conjunction with DDOT and the Kennedy Center, say they have initiated work on an Environmental Assessment (EA) to evaluate the proposed staircases.

The  Kennedy Center was conceived by architect Edward Durrell Stone as a dignified symmetrical temple-­like structure, later dedicated as a memorial to President Kennedy.  Moore said his design for the broad stairs echos the grand stairs seen at other presidential memorials including the Jefferson and Lincoln. The proposed "fire-escape" style design "fails to respond to that tradition," Moore wrote to the NCPC.

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The Tatler

this proposed central ramp does NOT respect the river, The Kennedy Center's elegant formality and looks really cheap. the ramp needs to be at the baseball park


Love the wonderful stairs concept a la Arthur Cotton Moore which is loooong past due. Cannot comprehend the "fire escape" tack-ons.

carolyn alper

this new plan is undercommunicated hastily conceived and does our city and neighborhood a great disservice. how about putting it in the wasington post ffor starters and let the city have a go at it. i for one think a grand stairay where people could sit and enjoy the river ,eat, watch rces etc would be marvelous as compared to a narrow user unfrindly stairway that you have proposed. thake a scond look please


We much prefer the 1987 design by Arthur Cotton Moore and think it is the only design (of the three mentioned) that is in keeping with the majesty associated with the Kennedy Center as a national center for the performing arts and as a memorial to President Kennedy. The addition of a stairway that connects the Kennedy Center to the Potomac ought to be just as grand as the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, which provide access to the memorial and also a welcome place for everyone to enjoy our National Mall.


Very interesting - but the facts are all wrong. First, the image you are showing for the "new stair" is not the solution being developed for the Kennedy Center Stairs - that was one of many studies which included a direct stair, but NOT THE CURRENT PROPOSAL.

The stair proposed by Mr. Moore was studied but is not possible to build without moving the bulkhead along the riverfront. Also a new floating dock would be required. The "new" Kennedy Center Stairs and Plaza on the Potomac River were designed about five years ago and presented to the public. This design was among many that were presented to the Commission of Fine Arts, NCPC and SHPO. All these groups agreed the "new stair" was the best solution and were very active in the design process. It was also presented to the public and there were many positive comments.

Now after five years and a huge amount of work you are saying you prefer the Author Cotton Moore scheme which was not approved and does not meet any of the criteria of the Kennedy Center, the National Park Service, Federal Highways and the Corp of Engineers. The riverfront would have to be filled in to build those stairs. There is not enough land to create a straight stair to the water and no space for a plaza or bike/pedestrian trail. We looked at that option - and everyone agreed it doesn't work.

I am very concerned that you are making statements about the old scheme and the new scheme without understanding what has been studied and what is possible considering the environmental impacts on the river. Please look at all the facts and understand what the issues are.

Also please show the correct "new stairs" The one you are showing is very misleading as is the whole discussion.