Varied Visions of Embattled War Memorial (The Washington Post)

By Marc Fisher, The Washington Post

In the battle royal over where to put the World War II Memorial, I was trying to decide which side I was on: Pierre L’Enfant and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.’s, or Tom Hanks and Bob Dole’s. Tough choice. L’Enfant’s idea for this city is an enduring burst of brilliance, and Olmsted’s parks lend so many places a sense of grandeur and grace. But Hanks was funny in “Toy Story,” and Dole has the driest wit of any pol around.

On second thought, maybe this isn’t such a hard choice. One side wants to preserve the Mall as an almost perfect symbol of our nation’s ideals, a place for respite, recreation and remonstration. The other side wants to change forever this dramatic vista because World War II was the Big One and it deserves a most prominent place in our national memory.

But before we get to the merits of the proposed memorial, which would be the biggest change in the Mall’s central corridor since the Lincoln Memorial opened in 1922, take a short walk with me up the gentle incline on the west side of the Washington Monument.

I’d never focused on this spot until I visited it with architectural historian Judy Feldman and Kent Cooper, architect of the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Walk up toward the Washington, turn around and suddenly the vista stops you hard: Jefferson to your left, Lincoln straight on, the White House to your right.

Any feeling you have for your country swells up within you. Look ahead at the Great Emancipator and see the sweep of the Reflecting Pool, the long rows of elm trees. Memories, historical totems, come rushing back–perhaps Martin Luther King’s March on Washington or the rallies against the Vietnam War or the outpourings on either side of the abortion debate or the “million marches”–men or moms.

And then you must imagine that this magnificent view and the opportunity for future generations to take their place in this march of democracy are marred, replaced just west of 17th Street by a stone plaza with 47-foot-high arches and a ring of 56 stone pillars, each 17 feet high. Not only would the view be changed forevermore, but pedestrians strolling from the Washington to the Lincoln would enter the submerged World War II Memorial plaza and find no exit to the west. To complete the stirring walk from Washington to Lincoln, one would have to back out of the memorial’s “sacred precinct” and walk around the complex.

This design, so cliched, so lacking in emotion, is a dull expanse of stone. “If a memorial has to be explained, it fails,” Feldman says. The memorials that really work–Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, Vietnam–communicate instantly and deeply.

Let’s stop here and agree that WWII was indeed the Big One. It, far more than Vietnam or Korea, deserves a central place in our collective memory. The question is not if, but where and what. There is a place on the Mall that could do the war justice: Constitution Gardens, north of the Reflecting Pool. It’s a grand and prominent site yet wouldn’t muck up the Mall’s central corridor.

But proponents of the memorial say only the central axis of the Mall will do. And they portray this as a done deal–groundbreaking is scheduled for November, and our vanishing president, striving for military credentials even now, is said to be eager to head up the ceremony. But the project still needs final approval from three federal entities.

There are alternatives to architect Friedrich St. Florian’s grandiose concept for the World War II Memorial–a design the New York Times described as “an unhappy echo of Third Reich bombast.” (It is reminiscent as well of the Soviet war memorial at Treptow in eastern Berlin, a comical piece of Stalinist pomposity.) “Do we really want to use the same kind of architecture used by the people we fought in the war?” Feldman asks.

One idea came from a member of the National Capital Planning Commission, Margaret Vanderhye, of Fairfax, who suggested that if the war memorial must be in the center of the Mall, it might best be a simple plaque noting that if you want to know why Americans fought, you need only look around.

 

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