Statement by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton on ACHP WWII Memorial Report

We have asked the press to come here this morning because an important development in the controversy concerning a memorial all agree should be built to World War II veterans deserves more than passing notice.

In a decision issued yesterday, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation became the first entity to break the lockstep of approval–thus far by four separate bodies–of the Frederick St. Florian design, a gargantuan obstruction so unattractive that public outcry forced the recommittal for redesign. The Historic Preservation Council found that “the current design of the proposed Memorial does not achieve [the] strict standard of compatibility with its historic setting” and that the “scale and complexity creates tension with the transcendental symbolic significance and fundamental simplicity of the National Mall.” Today we join the Council in asking Interior Secretary Babbitt to act on his commitment of July 23, 1997, in the wake of the Mall controversy as the Council says, “to ensure that no unacceptable impact to the historic properties occurs as a result of the project.”

Notably, the Council found that the National Park Service, a federal agency within the Interior Department, failed to release a completed report that demonstrates the effect of the proposed Memorial on the Rainbow Pool/Lincoln Memorial site. This failure, in my view, bears all the hallmarks of deliberate suppression of critical information by a federal agency, a factor Secretary Babbitt, the responsible Cabinet official, must consider in reviewing the recommendations of the Council for a new design. The release of the Park Service study a year after it was completed is part and parcel of a consistent pattern of serious and apparent violations of required procedures by the entities and officials involved.

I will be writing Secretary Babbitt to remind him that the factors named in his letter of July 23, 1997, for compliance with federal law have not been met. Because I represent this city, I am especially concerned that traffic, visitor volume studies, and assessment of accessibility for visitors, all named in the Babbitt letter have not been reviewed. Instead, to accomplish anything like the proposed design, the Mall itself would have to be terribly defaced just to make room for foot and vehicle traffic. Yet the entities that have approved this proposal have buried these indispensable issues under the proverbial grass on the Mall, only to rear their ugly heads when it may be too late. Moreover, by refusing to assess environmental impacts, other issues mentioned in the Babbitt letter may well make the proposal impossible to achieve, including “flood plain and flood protection issues, fireworks, diplomatic helicopter arrival locations, maintenance and operational concerns, and impacts on existing trees.” Importantly Secretary Babbitt said in his letter that “as required by National Environment Policy Act [NEPA], [the Department] will analyze the alternative of not building anything on the site.”

The veterans have been blameless in this controversy and deserve much better. Former Senator Bob Dole and the veterans he represents had nothing to do with the choice of a site and, to his credit, Senator Dole has always sought a memorial appropriate to the site. I also continue to be a strong advocate for a World War II Memorial. At the same time, I have sought two other goals that are fully compatible with the achievement of the Memorial: to preserve the unique and historic open space between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and to encourage a design worthy of these veterans. The Council “has accepted that it is possible to design a World War II Memorial on this site that could harmonize with its historic surroundings.” I believe that the Council’s goal of a new design that is compatible with the open vistas of this site would be very difficult to achieve, especially in light of the Council’s view that a war memorial must also “complement not compete with the Mall’s transcendent historic and cultural values and that the Mall remain the genuinely common ground that is has been historically.” The African American civil rights community, in testimony before the Council by Dr. Dorothy Height, Chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, has already indicated that the Memorial trespasses both physically and thematically on the Lincoln Memorial and on the universality of the themes it invites. If not the site, at the very least, this design must not be the last word.

As the congresswoman who represents the nation’s capital, I would hope that the Council’s decision begins the process of rectifying the violations and permanent damage to the McMillan Plan, which incorporates the Rainbow Pool site into the Lincoln Memorial and to the irreplaceable vision of Charles McKim and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., architects of the Mall’s green space genius. The principled decision the Historic Preservation Council respecting the aesthetic, the history, the traditions, the place, and the future uses of the Mall for all the American people and all their great causes gives us significant hope that a fitting memorial and site can still be achieved.

 

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