Design for World War II Memorial awaits review, with detractors vocal (The New York Times)

By Irwin Molotsky, The New York Times

WASHINGTON, July 16 – Fifty-five years after the last gun fell silent, a national monument to those who fought in World War II is approaching a decisive point.

The design for the monument, which is planned for a site on the Mall and would cost an estimated $100 million, will go before the Commission of Fine Arts on Thursday. The commission has the last word on the architectural appearance of official structures in the capital.

Proponents of the monument, like Bob Dole, the Republican presidential candidate in 1996, who was gravely wounded in the war, and Hugh L. Carey, the former governor of New York and a war veteran, say they are optimistic that the commission will approve the plans, while opponents are preparing to argue that the memorial should be moved to a different site or be scaled down.

If the plans are approved, the next and final hurdle comes on Aug. 3, when it goes before the National Capital Planning Commission, which provides planning guidance for federal land and buildings in the region. This body generally defers to the fine arts commission on design questions, so Thursday’s decision is likely to be critical.

The monument, first proposed in legislation introduced in Congress in 1987 by Representative Marcy Kaptur, Democrat of Ohio, has been under discussion and wending its way through the bureaucracy for four years. Recently it was approved by the National Park Service.

If the two commissions approve, ground should be broken on Veterans Day this fall with completion scheduled for 2003.

Mr. Carey, who fought in France, the Netherlands and Germany, was vice chairman of the American Battle, Monuments Commission, the federal agency designated by Congress to establish the monument. He has expressed some reservations about the design of the monument, but he nonetheless backs approval.

The Battle Monuments Commission selected a Rhode Island architect, Friedrich St. Florian, to design the monument after a national competition in 1996. The last four years have been taken up by completion of the plan, fund raising, the slow wheels of the federal bureaucracy and addressing objections of opponents who criticize its design and placement on the MaIl between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Mr. St. Florian’s design calls for an oval pool that would replace the existing and slightly larger Reflecting Pool on the Mall. Two semicircles of 56 pillars (one for each American state and territory during the war) and two arches (one named Atlantic and the other Pacific for the two main theaters of war) would flank the pool to the north and south.

On the east side Mr. St. Florian has placed a broad entrance ramp from 17th Street NW, and on the west a waterfall that is adjacent to the Reflecting Pool, the long expanse of water that points toward the Lincoln . Memorial. “Our intention was to be timeless,” Mr. St. Florian said in an interview, standing before a model of his work. “It goes back to Jefferson and the founders of our nation.”

To Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, the design goes back further; too far, in fact.

“The St. Florian design is dehumanizing,” said Ms. Feldman, an art and architectural historian who has taught at the University of Dallas and Texas Christian University and now teaches at American University. “Triumphal arches and pillars are military triumphal scenes used as long ago as the Roman Empire.

“World War II was all of America coming together. It was not a war of conquest but a war of liberation. The American way of making memorials has not been to use conquest imagery.” That kind of imagery, she said, went out of style in the United States a century ago, with the Washington Arch in Manhattan, built in 1895.

Mr. St. Florian, who teaches architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, defends his work against such criticism. “There is absolutely nothing imperial about this design,” he said. “The architecture is most appropriate, in the classical language. We did not want to go back and copy but to be interpreters.”

Mr. St. Florian said that the arch design was timeless but that his had its own character. Besides being open on all four sides, he said, each arch will have an oculus to let in light to illuminate the sculptures inside.

The two sculptures by Ray Kaskey each depict four eagles holding a victory laurel in their beaks, forming a baldacchino, or canopy. F. Haydn Williams, who headed the selection process for the American Battle Monuments Commission and is a Navy veteran of World War II, said the floors under the arches would pay tribute to all the armed services with the words “Victory on Land, Victory on Sea, Victory in the Air.”

To critics like Ms. Feldman, the monument is not only the wrong design but also in the wrong place.

It will block the grand open vista between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, she said, destroying the impact designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who called for long lines of elms. Mr. St. Florian disputes this, saying that the World War II memorial will be barely visible to someone looking at the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial and vice versa.

In addition, Ms. Feldman said, the nation will lose a good portion of its traditional rallying, place because the memorial will be sunk six feet below street level, and its waterfall will block passage down the middle of the Mall.

“There can be no more marches on Washington because there will be no more open spaces between trees,” she said, calling the Mall “the most important gathering spot in the United States.”

Advocates of the St. Florian plan insist that there Will remain plenty of room for passage through the paths between the elms, which will not be disturbed, and that the old Rainbow Pool and the retained Reflecting Pool barred that kind of direct passage in any event.

The area already contains memorials to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, so some see the site as appropriate while others contend that it is another encroachment on the openness of the Mall.

With the support of people like Mr. Dole; Frederick W. Smith, chairman of Federal Express; and the actor Tom Hanks, who starred in the World War II epic “Saving Private Ryan,” the campaign to raise $100 million for the work is nearly complete.

Michael G. Conley, an official of the monument campaign, said that $93 million had been received in gifts and pledges. Of this $14.5 million came from Wal-Mart ($5 million from the company’s foundation and the rest from employees and custom ers), $7.5 million from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and $3 million from the American Legion.

Mr. St. Florian, whose design won in a competition against 400 others, expressed confidence in its success. “In 20 years,” he said, “it will be part of this family of great memorials, and nobody will have any arguments about it.”

Mr. Carey said he was eager for things to go forward, although he would have preferred a monument of the understated elegance of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. “I’m not going to derogate it,” he said of the St. Florian design, “but something’s missing: the actual sense of the level of bravery and dedication.”

But now that it has gone this far, Mr. Carey said, it is important to complete the monument while many World War II veterans are still alive.

About 16.3 million Americans served in the war, and more than 400,000 died. The Department of Veterans Services said this year that 5.7 million veterans were still living. They are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day. “We get together for the reunions of the 104th Division,” said Mr. Carey, “but every year the number of hotel reservations goes down.”