World War II Memorial Clears Key Hurdle (The Washington Post)

By Linda Wheeler, The Washington Post

The Fine Arts Commission yesterday unanimously approved a controversial design for the proposed World War II memorial on the Mall and reaffirmed its support for a prominent site between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

The five hours of testimony and the unusually large crowd in attendance reflected the attention brought to the proposed monument by the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. While failing to change the vote of any of the seven commissioners, the group placed a spotlight on the usually quiet and deliberative process of selecting a national memorial site.

The design now goes before the National Capital Planning Commission, which is expected to approve it at its Sept. 7 meeting. The location for the memorial was approved in 1995, and officials from both commissions have said that only an act of Congress could overturn the site selection, an event considered unlikely.

The Fine Arts Commission usually meets at the National Building Museum, where hearings rarely attract a crowd, but yesterday’s session was held in the auditorium of the Interior Department to accommodate the expected crowd.

“I feel like my grandfather, the preacher, who only filled the church on Christmas,” said Commission Chairman J. Carter Brown as he ended the all-day meeting. “We love people to come to our meetings. We make decisions every four weeks that affect all of us.”

It was at a sparsely attended meeting five years ago that the commission moved from considering a site favored by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the memorial builder, to one that had not been on a potential site list, the Rainbow Pool. The little-known pool lies just east of the larger, more familiar Reflecting Pool that mirrors the Lincoln Memorial.

The site became widely known to the public in 1997, when architect Friedrich St. Florian presented his first design proposal. His initial conception, so large that it obscured the view of the Lincoln Memorial, was rejected.

Thereafter, a few would testify against the site at each hearing when the World War II memorial was discussed and were politely ignored.

But yesterday was different. There were more witnesses opposed to the site, the design or the process than supporters.

“The Mall is about to become a gated community,” said architect Robert Miller, denouncing the site and design.

Veteran John Graves told the commission that “the project is well greased” and that his small group, World War II Veterans to Save the Mall, didn’t have a chance because it couldn’t afford full-page newspaper ads and the endorsements of movie stars to lobby for its cause.

Rundy Hamblen, who served as a nurse during the war, said there weren’t enough American elements–such as Army helmets–in the design. “I have one sticking around,” she said.

Brown told her to hold on to it; the commission may need it.

The first part of the meeting was taken up with testimony from supporters of the project, including Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who sponsored the legislation to create the memorial, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), Rep. Robert A. Weygand (D-R.I.), Del. Robert A. Underwood (D-Guam) and former senator Robert J. Dole, who is finance chairman for the memorial and a World War II veteran.

“If we had not prevailed in the war, would we be discussing where to locate the site?” Dole asked. “Someone else would tell us what we can say and when we can say it.”

Dole later said the memorial committee needs more than $100 million to build the monument. So far, he said, $95 million has been raised.

Supporters of the memorial embraced St. Florian’s latest design, which he refined from a concept the commission had approved in 1998. Brown praised the latest version as more in keeping with the site and less obtrusive.

The low-slung design calls for the land to be excavated so that most of the memorial is six feet below the current level of the Rainbow Pool. A circle of columns and two arches would be set back into the tree line. Additional waterfalls and more grassy areas also pleased Brown.

Most of those who supported the design spoke from prepared testimony. When Brown asked if anyone else wanted to be heard, veteran Jack Holden, of Temple Hills, jumped up.

Speaking without notes, he told a hushed audience: “We won the war. It was victory. So few of you have ever experienced victory, you don’t know how it feels.”

Holden said he carried his dead buddy, Edwin Lipps, off a battlefield in Europe.

“The memorial is something we can touch,” he said. “It’s an addition to the Mall. It means Edwin can have a spiritual home.”