Desecrating a Landmark to Build a Memorial (San Francisco Chronicle)

By Tony Illia, San Francisco Chronicle

On Sept. 21, the National Capital Planning Commission voted 7 to 5 to build a $100 million World War II memorial in our nation’s capital. More than 100 witnesses testified for and against the proposal at the commission meeting, which lasted 10 hours.

Controversy has embroiled the project from the beginning, not only because of its enormous size, but also because of its conspicuous placement in the National Mall. Certainly, no one disputes that World War II veterans deserve a monument; something fitting to acknowledge their courage and sacrifice. In fact, the very idea has drawn corporate sponsorship from WalMart and celebrity endorsements from Tom Hanks.

Yet, creating a 7.4-acre monument, which incidentally has a bigger footprint than the Lincoln Memorial, would ruin the National Mall. When French architect Pierre L’Enfant designed our nation’s capital in 1791, he envisioned a large open space lined with bold government buildings and broad avenues. The mall has been the focal point of Washington for two centuries, creating a grand promenade where people could congregate and express ideas. It has been the stage of such historic events as Marian Anderson’s 1939 recital, Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and “Hands Across America” in 1986, when 7 million people formed a 4,000-mile long chain holding hands from New York to California in an effort to raise nomey to aid the hungry and homeless. Perhaps more than any monument, the mall articulates the principles upon which our nation was founded – democracy and freedom.

Since L’Enfant plan was put into practice, plenty of monuments and buildings have been constructed. None, however, dared impede upon the two-mile vista that the mall provides. Rather, they have all been built alongside of it, including the Vietnam, Korean and Iwo Jima memorials. Monuments such as these communicate a simple yet powerful emotion with understated clarity and eloquence. The proposed World War II monument embodies none of these qualities.

Designed by Rhode Island architect Frederich St. Florian, the monument calls for a 6-foot-deep sunken stone plaze that would extend the length of a football field. There are two semicircles of 56 stone pillars, each 17 feet high, and a pair of triumphal arches that are as tall as a four-story building. In addition, there are two waterfalls, four pools, eight monumental bronze eagles, 58 bronze wreaths and 24 bas-relief panels. (Believe it or not, this is a scaled-down version.) Each pillar is intended to represent one of the 56 U.S. states or territories that contributed to the war effort. The two 41-foot-tall arches symbolize the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of operation, where the war was fought.

The memorial will be built at the Rainbow Pool on the esat-end of the reflecting pool betwen the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Far from contributing architecture or a memorable design, it creates an aesthetic disaster for Washington.

The mall provides the proper amount of balance to a city cluttered with memorials. It acts as an abstract space between the Washington and Lincoln memorials. It also heightens the visceral impact and importance of each monument while drawing them together.

The slender, erect Washington Memorial with the Rainbow Pool in front, which will now be moved, and the classical, temple-like Lincoln Memorial with the long reflection pool form the city’s backbone. They narrate our national pride with immediately recognizable symbols of equality and independence. The World War II memorial, with its garish, uninspired arrangement, defaces the composition of the National Mall. It obstruct what it should celebrate and cheapens what it should honor.

It’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate monument that the National Mall to symbolize everything that our World War II veterans fought for. A November 11 ceremony will commemorate the groundbreaking of the new memorial, and, sadly, it will mark the passing of a national landmark.