By Christopher Knight, The Los Angeles Times
A big, bold and bad plan to erect a World War II monument on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, disturbing that U.S. landmark, sends a signal that our historical preservation laws can be cracked. In Washington these days, conventional wisdom has it that the ill-conceived plan to build a $100-million World War II Memorial on the grounds of the existing Lincoln Memorial is a done deal. Groundbreaking will take place on Veteran’s Day (Nov. 11), the Lincoln Memorial’s Rainbow Pool will be demolished, and architect Friedrich St. Florian’s Imperial Kitsch design will rise on the National Mall.
Conventional wisdom may–or may not–be right on this matter. We’ll know a lot more after Monday, when the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation holds a belated public hearing. Things will be even clearer after Sept. 21, when the National Capital Planning Commission holds the final hearing on the project–and will rubber stamp it, if conventional wisdom is correct.
Let’s assume for the moment that is exactly what will happen. Let’s also set aside the admittedly big problem of St. Florian’s cheesy design for the new memorial, which calls for a vast sunken plaza with 56 marble columns festooned with funereal bronze wreathes and huge eagle sculptures inside two triumphal arches, each four stories tall. Bad art is bad enough, but something even bigger is at stake.
Tearing down part of an existing, widely beloved national memorial and building a new one on the ashes of the old raises an obvious question. What does this project mean for the future of historic preservation in our nation’s capital?
The question isn’t trivial. Congress has put important safeguards in place to protect our shared national patrimony, including irreplaceable treasures like the Lincoln Memorial and its grounds, conceived and designed by artistic luminaries Charles F. McKim, Henry Bacon and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. But the World War II Memorial stomps all over those protections. Is a destructive precedent being set?
Any new national monument goes through a pair of government reviews. One focuses on the proposed design. The other, which is just as critical, concerns the chosen site. In a place like Washington, already chockablock with monuments, this second review is complicated because the stakes are so high. It shouldn’t be easy to mess with the abundance of historic treasures.
Site review for the World War II Memorial, under way for about six years, has more subplots than an episode of “Survivor.” Yet, our National Park Service, which will administer the memorial upon completion, seems to have made a hash of the review. Monday’s scheduled meeting of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation is but one example: The agency’s recommendations to the Park Service were supposed to be made before the final selection of the memorial’s site.
Other examples loom much larger. In fact, at least three firm legal protections have simply been kicked to the curb. Two are matters of politically vulnerable bureaucratic process, while the third goes to the heart of preservation philosophy. Each tale is more awful than the next, but any one of the three should have been enough to halt this foolish plan years ago.
First, the National Environmental Policy Act requires that the Park Service prepare an environmental impact statement on the project. The new monument will fill a 7.4-acre site smack in the center of the Mall, right between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Despite this conspicuous location, no environmental impact statement exists. The Park Service waived the requirement.
Second, the backbone of the protection process is Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Even though it’s just 11 weeks away from groundbreaking, Section 106 review is still incomplete.
Section 106 requires, among much else, that the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Review Board examine the plan. The review board did just that in May 1998, and its report found that “the destruction of the original Rainbow Pool, a significant contributing feature of the National Mall which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is an adverse effect” of the planned World War II Memorial.
What did the National Park Service do? On July 2, 1998, it issued a formal finding that building the planned memorial would have “no significant impact” on the site. Destruction of Rainbow Pool, not to mention its role in garnering National Register status for the Lincoln Memorial grounds, was thus deemed to be of no consequence.
Reviews Out of Order; Law Snubbed?
In effect, the 1998 Park Service finding approved selection of the Rainbow Pool as the new memorial’s location–an action also taken by the federal Commission of Fine Arts that year. But Section 106 review is supposed to be completed before the Park Service and the Commission make their final site selection, not after. As we know, the review still isn’t complete today, two years after they both gave a thumb’s up to Rainbow Pool.
The third apparent violation of legal protections for historic preservation is perhaps the most shocking because it involves core principle, not mere evasion of regulatory procedure. It’s also the most blatant: Building the World War II Memorial on the protected grounds of the Lincoln Memorial is a bald violation of the Commemorative Works Act.
This 1986 law, which limits the authority of the Park Service or any other review agency, gets right down to brass tacks. Three criteria must guide any decision made by the Secretary of the Interior, the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts on site and design approval for new memorials. Criterion No. 2 decrees: “A commemorative work shall be so located as to prevent interference with, or encroachment upon, any existing commemorative work and to protect, to the maximum extent practicable, open space and existing public use.”
Here, the public is being taken for a fool. We are being asked to believe that demolishing the Rainbow Pool and building a World War II Memorial the size of a football field right on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial–grounds that have had protected National Historic Register status for nearly 20 years–is in harmonious accord with that particular criterion.
Capital Commission Is Set to Explain
It will be fascinating to hear the National Capital Planning Commission explain away the restriction at its meeting next month. Of course, they could simply repeat what the Commission of Fine Arts did at its final hearing in July. They could just ignore the pesky law.
The irony is that the Commemorative Works Act was born of a congressional fear that “memorial fever” was overtaking Washington and that a proliferation of new monuments–however worthy their cause–could soon destroy the magnificence of what was already there. In the wake of the national controversy that erupted in 1981 over the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dozens of other groups had begun lining up to seek approval for their own memorial projects. Congress felt compelled to act on behalf of historic preservation.
But their solution–the Commemorative Works Act–obviously doesn’t work. If it did, the conventional wisdom today would be that the World War II Memorial will of course be built at a prominent civic location; but not at Rainbow Pool.
Given this fiasco, perhaps we can look forward to more grotesque blights on the nation’s “protected” historic landscape. How about a chatty android of Robert E. Lee presiding over the battlefield at Gettysburg? Or maybe a sightseers’ chairlift up the face of Half Dome at Yosemite?
In Washington last fall, a Joint Task Force on Memorials recommended that no more statues, walls, columns, pavilions or other commemorative structures be built anywhere in a T-shaped area stretching from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and from the White House to the Tidal Basin. “The Reserve,” they called it. But given the failure of the National Environmental Policy Act, the failure of the National Historic Preservation Act and the failure of the Commemorative Works Act to protect the Mall from ruination by the imminent World War II Memorial, one wonders why they think their little recommendation makes one damn bit of difference.
Tags: WWII Memorial