By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times
J. Carter Brown did much to distinguish himself during his 22-year tenure as director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which ended in 1992. Now, he is about to throw all that away. Unless something approaching a miracle occurs, Brown will soon be branded as the Man Who Wrecked the Mall.Thursday morning at 9, Brown will convene of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, of which he is chairman. The topic: final design review of a $100-million memorial to World War II, before a November groundbreaking. The design by Friedrich St. Florian would replace the oval Rainbow Pool with a sunken stone plaza ringed by 56 stone pillars, each 17 feet high, and a pair of triumphal arches, each taller than a four-story budding. The pillars and arches encircle a smaller version of the original pool.
Larger than a football field, the 7.4-acre site lies on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial at the east end of the famous rectangular Reflecting Pool. The grounds, designed by such legendary figures as Charles McKim and Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., have become arguably the most important symbolic space on the Mall.
Building a prominent memorial to the world-changing event of World War II is a good idea. In fact, it’s startling to realize it wasn’t done 50 years ago (although neither does the capital boast a major memorial to World War I). ln many key respects, this memorial merits approval.
Except for one thing: It is in the wrong place.
Despoiling one of the most powerful public spaces in America to build it will disfigure the memory of the war in ways those veterans surely don’t deserve. By tinkering with the design rather than rethinking the site, Brown and his committee are merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
John Graves, a decorated veteran who fought with the 63rd In-fantry Division of the U.S. Army and who is a founder of the Veterans to Save the Mall advocacy group put it well. In a public service television spot that began airing in June, he laments, “Destroying our National Mall should not be part of our legacy.”
My father, who fought with the Army’s 81st Infantry Division, was even more succinct. “Oh, no,” he said when told of the plan.
Oh, no is right. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Five years ago, as plans for the war memorial were being made, a review of potential sites led the presidentially appointed American Battle Monuments Commission, sponsor of the project, to choose a different location. On a unanimous vote, they selected Constitution Gardens, just north of the Reflecting Pool, but not on the grand, unimpeded east-west axis that connects the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and on to the Capitol.
The site selection needed to be ratified by two agencies: the National Capital Planning Commission and Brown’s Commission of Fine Arts. At its meeting on July 27, 1995, the – Planning Commission agreed that Constitution Gardens was “the most appropriate site for the memorial,” as its executive director subsequently wrote to – inform the National Parks Service.
That same day, the Battle Monuments Commission, or ABMC, presented its identical recommendation to the fine arts commission. Minutes of the meeting show that former Ambassador F. Haydn Williams, a World War II Navy veteran and member of the ABMC, reported ‘unanimous agreement on Constitution Gardens.”
Then, after much discussion of various possible alternatives, a very odd exchange occurred.
Williams asked to speak again. He said that all the veterans on his site selection committee wanted a contemplative place, and they would have that at the Rainbow Pool on the great axis of the Mall. Chairman Brown immediately spoke up, observing that Constitution Gardens was not at the Rainbow Pool but off to one side.
Brown went on: Constitution Gardens was not “worthy” – of a memorial to World War II, he said;. but the commission would be open to suggestions as to how it could be moved onto the major east-west axis of the Mall ‹specifically at the Rainbow Pool.
A week later, Brown wrote to the ABMC to say, sorry, but the fine arts commission was unable to approve their preferred site at Constitution Gardens. Six weeks after that, Brown’s commission voted to locate the memorial at the Rainbow Pool. Sixteen days later, the planning commission changed its mind. Suddenly, Constitution Gardens was no longer “the most appropriate site” for the memorial; the Rainbow Pool was. The following month, on Veterans Day 1995, President Clinton dedicated the area as the war memorial site.
What had happened to generate such an abrupt change in direction, one that led to the stunning selection‹literally from out of the blue‹in the midst of what is perhaps the most important location in all of official Washington? Hard to say. But confidence in the openness of the public process was not bolstered last autumn when Williams was quoted in Talk magazine as saying, “We got the site before they [the public] knew what hit them.”
Nine days before the odd public exchange between Williams and Brown about the relative proximity of Constitution Gardens to the Rainbow Pool, Brown had received a letter from his old friend and former colleague, architect David Childs. A partner in the NewYork firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Childs was chairman of the. National Capital Planning Commission from 1975 to 1981, where he had worked closely with fellow chairman Brown. He also chaired the 10-member jury that selected St. Florian.
Childs’ letter vigorously objected to Constitution Gardens as the preferred site for the war me-morial. He said the informal park, although never – completed, was not intended – to be a memorial garden. “The World War II Memorial is an extraordinarily important project and must have an appropriately significant site,” he wrote‹in words that soon would be echoed by Brown at the public hearing.
Childs should know. In the early 1970s, he had designed Constitution Gardens. His letter, which effectively objected to the selection of “his” garden as the war memorial location, was read into the re cord at the July 27 1995, meeting.
If this slippery – site selection process makes you uneasy, you are not alone. The Veterans to Save the Mall group flatly charges that Brown and the ABMC bypassed the normal public process to secure the Lincoln Memorial site. The implication is that Brown protected – his friend’s interests, while the ABMC was rewarded for going along with the switch by getting an even better piece of real estate on the Mall.
Now that a November groundbreaking has been set, opposition to the ruinous plan is growing -fast. Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley recently likened the site maneuvers to a kangaroo court. The College Art Assn. has voiced alarm. District of Columbia Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton has called a press conference for Thursday morning. The Committee of 100 on the Federal City, Washington’s oldest citizens” planning and advocacy organization, has consistently opposed the Rainbow Pool location and is urging citizens to contact their congressional representatives, since now it will probably take an act of Congress to stop the Mall’s disfigurement.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt could halt it, but that’s unlikely. In 1997, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) urged him to stop the approval process and conduct an Environmental Impact Study. Eighteen senators signed Kerrey’s letter, including Republicans Orrin Hatch and Fred Thompson, and Democrats Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John Glenn. But the Clinton administration, up to its eyeballs in Armed Services problems since Day 1, could hardly be counted on to do anything but vigorously support a war memorial. Kerrey also submitted a letter to the Congressional Record from Richard Longstreth, vice president of the Society of Architectural Historians, professor of American civilization at George Washington University and editor of a book on the 200-year history of the National Mall. The blistering letter describes the Rainbow Pool plan in unequivocal terms- “inappropriate,” “among the very worst proposals ever made,” “grotesque,””terrible,” “distasteful to democracy”‹and compares it to projects undertaken by dictatorships, like Napoleon¹s Paris and Hitler¹s Berlin.
Strong words, but they’re also equal to the enormity of the imminent loss. The walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial is a deeply moving experience. But soon a war memorial will block the path, disfiguring the Lincoln Memorial in the process. It’s a project whose good intentions do not outweigh the ruination of one of our greatest national treasures.
Tags: WWII Memorial