The Battle of the Mall is Not Over Yet (The San Diego Union – Tribune)

By Welton Jones, The San Diego Union – Tribune

At least the Navy aircraft carrier Midway, if it does get towed to town as a tourist attraction, eventually will sink and be forgotten. We citizens of the USA aren’t so lucky with our national capital, where an offensive jumble of stone symbols is about to be dumped on the country’s front lawn, presumably forever, as a monument to World War II.

(Isn’t it ironic, by the way, that Midway is being touted as — among other things — a monument to that most honorable of wars? The ship had nothing to do with WWII. It was commissioned after the last shot was fired.)

Unless the federal courts intervene, work will begin this spring on a clumsy clump of sculpture on the Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, blocking off the classic sweep of lawn joining the capital’s two most magnificent shrines with a cluttered slab engulfing the Rainbow Pool at the base of the Washington monolith.

It’s all been approved, too. The deal is done. President Clinton turned over a symbolic divot of ground last Veterans Day. Opponents of this outrage — which have included the editorial pages of such troublemakers as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times — have only a pending federal lawsuit as a final hope.

For a half-century, the nation has been mulling a suitable monument to this defining epic of the 20th century. A couple of specific projects — the Marine’s Iwo Jima flag, the new FDR array — have set a high standard. The Korean War and, most sublimely, the Vietnam War have found their expressions.

With the generation that fought the war nearing its final muster, Congress decided in 1993 to take action. But it specified that, instead of military pomp, the memorial would reflect the larger realities of a nation united in a war for its existence.

Despite requirements for a public process in siting and designing the WWII memorial, a fog of special interests and D.C. politics descended upon the project.

From the alphabet soup of federal agencies involved in the planning came six potential sites in 1995, not including the Rainbow Pool. By the end of that year, though, that was the spot suggested, voted upon and approved, all more or less in private, and President Clinton dedicated the pool site.

The private funds necessary to build the $100 million project had been accumulating at a nice rate — $140 million by 1995. But they really flowed when former Sen. Robert Dole, who carries scars from the war, and actor Tom Hanks, featured to superb effect in the film “Saving Private Ryan,” made a series of television commercials urging donations.

Reportedly, as the $200 million mark nears, money continues to arrive for a project still not completely designed.

There was a competition in 1996 that attracted 404 entries. The winner was Friedrich St. Florian of Rhode Island. But he was required to rethink and resubmit his design to the satisfaction of various committees, which operated with a singular insulation from the public eye.

The result is a football field of granite with a reduced Rainbow Pool sunk in the center, surrounded by two triumphal arches, 56 stone pillars with bronze wreaths, eight bronze eagles, hanging sculptures, 24 wall sculptures, two waterfalls, four pools, several fountains, a field of stars, light shows, ceremonial walkways and ramps.

At one point, the design even included a symbolic coffin.

The general impression of frozen fascism in the drawings was summed up neatly in a Los Angeles Times cartoon showing Willie and Joe, the grizzled GI’s of Bill Mauldin’s unforgettable wartime cartoons, pausing in the midst of the monument to observe: “Looks like an officers club . . . a German officers club.”

“What do we want to remember about World War II?” asks Judy Scott Feldman, an art historian who is co-chairman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. “A memorial should be what? Citizen soldiers? The American people together as never before? America at its finest hour? The war fought not by generals but by citizen soldiers?

“We’re trying to protect the Mall, but we also want a truly meaningful memorial to the war. It’s a complex historical matter.”

If there are villains, most of them probably mean well. But it’s hard to stomach one of them, a patrician gent named J. Carter Brown, sometimes called, “Washington’s Grand Vizier of Taste.” A former director of the National Gallery of Art, Brown has been the presidential-appointed chairman of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts for decades. In 1994, he called the Marine Corps monument “kitsch,” but the next year he was throwing around enough weight to ram through the Rainbow Pool site and, after it was adjusted to his requirements, the St. Florian design.

As the plan evolved, some veterans’ groups protested the plans while others supported them vigorously. Eighteen senators and six congressmen, including Sen. Robert Kerrey, an authentic war hero, also complained. About the time Sen. Dole became involved, however, most of this opposition had evaporated.

Brown probably could have tamed the politicians, though others relieved him of that duty. Certainly he had no trouble controlling the architects who might object: He’s the chairman of the committee that awards the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture.

Those left in protest include a hefty bunch of preservationists defending the Mall, veterans demanding better work, political observers deploring the strong-arm tactics of the monument supporters and visionaries who wonder what D.C. outrage comes next.

Washington is crammed full of memorials, many of them becoming more awkward as the years pass. To control clutter and protect such masterpieces as the Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Vietnam shrines, Congress in 1986 passed the Commemorative Works Act, which required stringent public-review procedures for any new memorial, procedures that seemed to have been violated and ignored in the present case.

Perhaps the federal courts can yet save the Mall (and our generation’s aesthetic reputation). But how could it have gone this far without effective protest?

Washington seems a long way off to much of the country, and we depend perhaps too much upon our politicians to protect it from harm.

More likely, though, this is another case of too many people in power reluctant to kick around anybody with plans for sacred cows (sort of like the Midway rusting away in downtown San Diego).

It’s hard to find anybody in opposition to an appropriate World War II monument in the nation’s capital. Certainly the people bringing the lawsuits want the right thing in the right place, as their Web site — www.savethemall.org — indicates. (For the other side, see www.wwiimemorial.com. But the subject deserves the best we can give it. And right now, indifference and suspect agendas stand in the way.

 

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