Controversial WWII Memorial Clears Hurdle (The Chicago Tribune)

By Michael Kilian, The Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON – The controversial $100 million World War II Memorial planned for the National Mall won a key vote Thursday despite objections that it is an illegal intrusion on grounds set aside for the Lincoln Memorial. Only one governmental hurdle remains before the project can be built. In Thursday’s action, the federal Commission of Fine Arts voted unanimously to authorize the project’s design.

The six members also reaffirmed their earlier decision approving the National Mall as its site.

The vote followed a long and bitter public hearing in which opponents charged that a war memorial did not belong on land intended to honor Abraham Lincoln and that was sanctified by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Opponents urged the commission to defer its decision and re-examine other sites and designs before allowing the Mall to be “defaced.” However former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and others made impassioned appeals to the commission for the swift completion of the project so that significant numbers of veterans can live to enjoy it. Dole severely wounded as an infantry officer in Italy, noted tearfully that two-thirds of the 16 million men and women who served in uniform during the war are now dead.

“World War II was the greatest achievement of the 20th Century,” Dole, said “You’d not be here [debating this issue] if we had not prevailed.” The project could still be delayed beyond its scheduled Nov.11 groundbreaking.

Final approval is required by the federal National Capital Planning Commission, which this week postponed action on the memorial until September at the earliest because of allegations that federal agencies moved forward illegally on the project.

The Interior Department and President Clinton have announced their sup-port for the memorial.

What began as a local dispute over open space use has rapidly escalated. Tom Hanks and other Hollywood celebrities have joined veterans groups and major political figures to push for the memorial, while preservationist and conservationist groups have raised objections.

Designed by architect Friedrich St. Florian for 7.4 acres across the middle of the Mall, the memorial would be set at the foot of the long Reflecting Pool that runs east from the Lincoln Memorial and would surround the smaller, adjoining Rainbow Pool.

As submitted for Thursday’s vote, the project would incorporate a large waterfall and a circle of Romanesque columns and triumphal arches decorated with bronze eagles and victory wreaths. It also would be emblazoned with 4,210 large gold stars-each representing 100 Americans killed in World War II.

It had originally been planned for a different site, near the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, but was moved to the Mall at the suggestion of Fine Arts Commission Chairman J. Carter Brown, who argued that the memorial deserved more prominence.

In a letter sent Thursday to National Park Service Director Robert Stanton, attorney Andrea Ferster of an opposition group called. Veterans to Save the Mall complained that various federal agencies illegally moved ahead with the World War II project without officially reviewing the effect it would have on surrounding historic areas.

This was a violation of federal regulations, she said.

The public was denied sufficient opportunity to comment, she, said, adding that, according to National Park Service documents, the two pools and adjoining land are legally “integral components of the designed historic landscape of the Lincoln Memorial.”

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the capital’s non-voting representative in Congress, argued that the project is a disservice to World .War H veterans and the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. “Our generation will be blamed not only for obstructing the Mall, but for defacing it in the large chunks that would have to be carved out to make this space approachable.”

She objected to placing a war memorial on ground that has “come to stand for the freedom, democracy and equality themes associated with Washington and Lincoln.”

“Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when she could not sing at Constitution Hall because of her race,” Norton said. “Martin Luther King Jr. and 250,000 Americans made equality a living national aspiration for the first time at the Lincoln Memorial.

“We must not allow a unique space, embroidered with such special meaning, to send mixed messages.”

Brown’s Fine Arts Commission rejected the project’s initial, much larger design amid complaints that it cut the Mall in half, obstructed views of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument and was reminiscent of the large monuments created for Adolf Hitler by Nazi architect Albert Speer.

As modified, the design has a much lower profile, though the triumphal arches are to be five stories high and its 56 columns are to be 17 feet tall. Architectural historian Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, testified that even the modified design submitted Thursday is “imperialist and funereal.”

“There is no central sculpture,” she said. “There is nothing to express the human spirit.”

American Legion Past National Commander Butch Miller, former head of the nation’s largest veterans organization, told the commission that he thought St. Florian’s modified design was “splendid.”

“The design and the’ location are unique, just like the men and women [NBC’s] Tom Brokaw dubbed the ‘greatest generation,’ “Miller said.

Luther Smith, a veteran who flew 133 combat missions in the war as one of the African-American Tuskegee Airmen, agreed.

“We have the right site,” he said. “We have the right design. What we don’t have is a lot of time. The average age of World War II veterans is 80.”

Robert Peck, commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Public Building Service, countered com plaints about the proposed memorial’s architecture by noting that the Federal Reserve, the Interior Department and the new Ronald Reagan Building were among many official structures in Washington constructed in the same style.

Brown, the commission chairman, noted that original plans for the Mall called for a number of structures and monuments to be erected along its length, though most were never built.

He also noted that the Jefferson Memorial to the south of the Mall originally intended to be a World War I Memorial.