Let’s Reconsider the Site in the Nation’s Capital (Editorial, Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

What an unfortunate testimony to national priorities that a World War II memorial honoring those who served in the armed forces and those who sacrificed at home remains unbuilt more than 50 years after the battles in Europe and the Pacific ended. More delays loom over the vista of the National Mall, with a lawsuit filed Oct. 2 to block construction of a planned memorial between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

Designed by Rhode Island architect Friedrich St. Florian, the WWII structure would bisect the expanse between Washington and Lincoln, replacing the Rainbow Pool that sits at the east end of the long Reflecting Pool that is easily recognized in aerial views of the mall.

The site was quietly chosen in 1995 after a less prominent location closer to the Vietnam and Korean war memorials had been recommended.

Since St. Florian’s original design was unveiled in 1997, opposition to the style and location have steadily grown, with critics including architects, historic preservationists and some veterans. But the current plan still enjoys powerful supporters, including veterans groups, politicians and a fund-raising leader in the person of former Sen. Bob Dole.

The Fine Arts Commission approved the design and site in July; the National Capital Planning Commission followed suit in September, though by a 7-5 vote.

But the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which has input but not a vote, harshly criticized the project in a letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Babbitt has the final say — he approves the construction permits.

There is no doubt that a piece of public art to recall what was lost and what was gained in World War II is warranted. Yet St. Florian’s interpretation — with a large plaza sunken below street level, a replica of the Rainbow Pool, large arches, columns and victory wreaths — has been called uninspired and worse.

From artist’s renderings on the Internet, the design doesn’t compare with the sheer drama of the gargantuan men raising the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima at the Marine War Memorial; the overwhelming sense of sadness conveyed by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s wall of names; or the haunted look in the eyes of the ponchoed steel men patrolling the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Critics of the World War II site make several persuasive arguments.

First, that the placement detracts from the two-mile national park anchored by the Capitol and Lincoln, with Washington in the middle and Jefferson clearly visible across the Tidal Basin.

Secondly, that a monument focusing on militaristic values of victory and sacrifice should not be interjected into such prominent juxtaposition with memorials that stand for the more universal American ideals of freedom and idealism that the war effort meant to preserve.

There are other considerations, such as the symbolic importance of that stretch of Mall to the civil rights movement.

The beauty and serenity of the Mall are worth preserving. While the lawsuit challenging the process by which the monument came to approval may not succeed, it’s not too late to relocate this worthy memorial.

Nor would that diminish its value.

Great monuments don’t usually take their place of honor the day they open for business. That comes after many visitors have passed by, have wept and prayed and embraced the solace and inspiration they found there.

What a pity that such a worthy project should be consumed in such dissension.

One longs to trek the steps up to Mr. Lincoln’s mighty chair and ask that towering, wise face to help with a resolution.

 

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