The Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden and plaza is a landscaped open-air gallery — a contemplative haven in the heart of a major urban center. Despite its serene appearance, the garden had a tumultuous birth. Nathaniel Owings of the international architecture and engineering firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill of New York City, conceived the original idea for a rectangular sunken garden on the National Mall in 1966. Gordon Bunshaft, another partner with the firm, carried out Owings’ idea. Bunshaft’s original plan in 1967 called for a two-acre sunken garden that would bisect the Mall and be oriented perpendicular to the future Hirshhorn Museum that would be located just across the street. The garden would be 7 feet below ground level with 3-foot high walls creating an enclave that was 10 ft. deep. A 506 x 60 foot rectangular reflecting pool would dominate the space surrounded by a pebble-covered walkway. It was an austere Minimalist design with few trees, bushes, or flowers.

The original Bunshaft plan created much controversy and Congress halted work on the project in January 1971. The following month, Benjamin Forgey, then art critic for the Washington Star newspaper, wrote an article that proposed some solutions. He suggested making the reflecting pool smaller, turning the garden parallel to the Mall and moving it closer to the museum. He also recommended adding terraces and plants to soften the space. Congress approved new plans incorporating these ideas in July 1971.

When the redesigned 1.3-acre sunken garden finally opened in 1974, it was a neutral setting where the sculptures commanded much of the attention. It featured a center court 14 feet below ground level with a rectangular reflecting pool and two flanking terraces. Enclosed within high walls, the garden featured a ground surface of pebbles, no grass, and few plants. The garden’s shortcomings soon became evident. The pebbles were difficult to walk on. There was no access for strollers or wheelchairs. There was not enough shade. It was truly a hot, stark, and bleak space.

In 1977, landscape architect Lester Collins, a member of the Smithsonian’s Horticultural Advisory Committee and President of the Innisfree Foundation, redesigned the sunken garden to make it more user friendly. His goal was to provide ramps for easier access and to soften the area with extensive plantings. Construction began in 1979 and the garden reopened in 1981. Today the pebbles are gone and the sculpture garden features verdant, manicured lawns. The large, harsh open area is now divided into more intimate spaces. It is a calming green space with a weeping beech, pines, and crape myrtles. Central beds with large swaths of autumn moor grass and Japanese forest grass give the garden soft movement, while groupings of lavender perfume the air.

The Hirshhorn museum and plaza garden area also opened in 1974. Seventeen years later, because of the plaza’s deteriorating concrete surfaces, it was necessary to renovate the outdoor space. In 1991, landscape architect James Urban of Annapolis, Maryland, in collaboration with museum staff, redesigned and renovated the 2.7-acre area that surrounds the circular building. A wheelchair entrance to the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden next door was added to link to a newly installed pathway circling the inside of the plaza that encourages visitors to see the sculpture from the outer reaches of the plaza. Today, grassy areas for sculpture resembling “rooms” and divided by rows of flowering trees are situated in the plaza’s four corners. Along the plaza’s east and west sides are slightly smaller spaces for sculpture amid groves of honey locust trees. The Hirshhorn’s immense circular fountain remains the focal point of the plaza area.

Entrepreneur and art collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn originally owned and displayed the sculptures that adorn the garden and the plaza on his 22-acre Connecticut estate. Today, an impressive selection of more than 60 of these works are displayed on only 4.5 acres in the Hirshhorn plaza and garden areas.