WASHINGTON — Plans to overhaul neglected sites on Washington’s National Mall with lakeside gardens, grassy amphitheaters, and restaurants with views of the nation’s memorials are getting a boost from a German carmaker.
Volkswagen of America announced a $10 million gift Thursday to the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall to jump-start fund-raising for the park. It’s the largest private gift to date to restore the most-visited national park.
The National Mall sees more visitors each year than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone combined. But its more than 1,000 acres of parkland and memorials weren’t designed to handle 25 million visitors a year. The mall is a 2-mile expanse that runs from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. It was designed by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791 to be the central axis of a national capital when Washington was still a swampland and had not yet taken shape.
Now visitors often come upon cracked sidewalks, dead grass, and fetid pools of water. Government funding to maintain the mall has lagged, though economic stimulus funding did pay for some improvements.
Volkswagen chief executive Jonathan Browning said he was shocked to see such poor conditions around the Jefferson Memorial where a sinking sea wall around the Tidal Basin has allowed regular flooding. He said that Washington’s monuments look great from afar but that it’s a different story on the ground.
‘‘You get up close and you see the wrinkles and the cracks and you think, this needs some tender loving care,’’ he said.
Volkswagen moved its US headquarters to the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia in 2008. It will not receive any naming rights to spaces on the mall but will eventually be recognized with other donors in a restored historic building in the park.
Browning, who is British, said he was drawn to supporting the National Mall because it’s a symbol of American culture that is open and free for all to enjoy. He said he plans to challenge other chief executives and organizations to support the mall as well.
‘‘As somebody who’s relatively new to Washington, D.C., the impression the National Mall had on me when I first arrived was very strong,’’ he said. ‘‘When you think it’s the site of the transfer of power between presidents, when you think of the right to free speech and to demonstrate, but also the right to kind of socialize and enjoy yourself, the mall, to me, is an incredible microcosm of what US life represents.’’
Browning will join Laura Bush as a cochairman of the fund-raising campaign.
At a fund-raising luncheon Thursday, National Mall superintendent Bob Vogel thanked donors and said Volkswagen’s gift will help create a more functional, sustainable park. He cheered recent improvements and said there is more work to do.
‘‘I don’t often get excited about grass,’’ Vogel said, noting recent turf enhancements where the grass had long been trampled. ‘‘Go see the grass. You will be impressed.’’
The Trust for the National Mall aims to raise $350 million to preserve and restore the mall. Its goal this year is to raise $38 million. Last year, the group raised $22 million, up from $5.3 million in 2011.