Washingtonians have always used the Mall for informal games and play because it is their local park. In the early 1900s, the government built a number of sports facilities in East and West Potomac Parks, and by 1940, tennis courts stood near the Capitol Building. During World War II, many spaces on the Mall that were not used for temporary office buildings were used for playing sports. After the war, sports fields located near the museum were slowly removed. Formal playing fields today can be found on the Washington Monument grounds and in East and West Potomac Parks.
Where on the Mall have people played sports?
A stretch of road between the Potomac and the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park was a popular spot with motorists around 1920, and the entire area earned the nickname "the Speedway." This 1921 newspaper article describes the sports people played in the area near the Speedway, such as polo, golf, baseball, and swimming. Most of these activities were free or cheap, but they were also segregated by race.
During the 1920s and '30s, formal sports fields and facilities grew in the area of Mall near the Potomac River. The Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the New Deal effort to provide jobs for Americans, worked in East and West Potomac Parks, improving the existing golf courses and adding a new one. This clip, from a film about daily life in Washington in 1936, shows the polo fields in use as well as a golfer who may have been playing on the new course.
These tennis courts near the Capitol were built around 1940. As the United States entered World War II, the city's population grew rapidly and every available space was needed for offices and housing. Much of the Mall was taken over by temporary buildings, so any open spaces became important as places to play for the people who now worked and lived on the Mall. These tennis courts were popular and were often booked from open until close. They were removed in 1970 to make way for the National Gallery of Art East Wing.
During wartime rationing in the early 1940s, the Mall was a popular and affordable spot for sports and recreation. Fuel was rationed so people could not travel as far out of town to take a vacation. Bicycles were also rationed because tire rubber was needed for the war effort, so some people rented bikes to run errands or for fun. This bicycle rental station was located next to the Tidal Basin, near the boat rental. Cycling down to the end of Hains Point was a popular activity for wartime Washingtonians.
Following World War II, sports facilities lined edges of the Mall and backed up to the Potomac. Although there are no official fields in the central part of the Mall, locals still use the grounds for pick-up games like this 1971 game of football on the Ellipse. The National Park Service monitors the turf and sets out indicator flags so people know where it is okay to play.