A historic vista now will make room for World War II memorial (Boston Globe)

By Christopher Newton, The Boston Globe

WASHINGTON (AP) In times of conscience, the still fields between the Washington Monument and Abe Lincoln’s mighty chair have served as the nation’s spiritual town square.

Change is coming to that historic sweep of the National Mall. It will be altered by the dream of thousands of World War II veterans. Soon, there will be a memorial to their effort at the heart of it.

A decade-long struggle was ended decisively by Congress last week with a vote to place the memorial plans outside the normal regulatory process, effectively overriding all the resistance.

Veterans are dying, about 1,100 each day, President Bush has noted. “It is time to give them the memorial they deserve.”

Opponents argued that the mall should remain open and untouched, so that future generations can protest the government in the tradition of Martin Luther King. Some also described the memorial design as gaudy, or authoritarian.

The controversy, which has even put some veterans on opposing sides, may endure as part of the memorial’s legacy.

“It is time to put all of this in the past and do right by our honored dead and the veterans that are still with us,” said Michael Conley, speaking for memorial planners. “It is almost unforgivable that we have no place in Washington that honors those who fought in a war that gave us our modern identity as a nation.”

Back across the bow:

“We could have memorialized World War II in a place that would not have defaced the National Mall, which is a historic symbol of our nation’s democracy,” said 79-year-old World War II veteran George Peabody, who allied with the Coalition to Save Our Mall. “I will never feel good about this.”

It began at a neighborhood fish fry in Toledo, Ohio.

World War II veteran Roger Durbin was flipping some fish over a grill, standing near Marcy Kaptur, a congresswoman who was campaigning in the area.

Recognizing her, he murmured a quick question: Why is there no World War II memorial in Washington? With no good answer, Kaptur became the champion of the cause and pushed Congress to create panels to oversee planning. That was 1987.

Some believed there were too many memorials in town already. Others thought it would glorify the war.

The anti-memorial groups had no center of gravity until 1995, when the Commission on Fine Arts bypassed six suggested sites for the memorial, proposing the mall instead.

The area, visited by millions every year, has become known for protests and demonstrations. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech there.

“I hope that people will take a walk through the open area one last time,” said Beth Solomon, speaking for the Save Our Mall group. “People coming to visit will wonder why we felt the need to ruin an area that represented the people’s space in Washington.”

The campaign for the mall site was star-studded, while the opposition was mostly ragtag.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, a decorated World War II veteran of the Italian campaign, led a fund-raising effort that brought in $170 million. Steven Spielberg, who directed the World War II epic “Saving Private Ryan,” lent his voice to the effort in advertising. Tom Hanks, who starred in that movie, followed suit.

But opponents recently managed two victories that threatened to keep the memorial from being built for some time.

A lawsuit based on environmental regulations and complaints of technical errors in the approval process threatened to drag the process out. All of that is moot now.

“The obstructionists would have drawn this out so that no veterans would be around to see the memorial built,” Conley said. “They have had access to a fair system. Someone had to step in and put a stop to this.”

Peabody and other veterans who condemn the memorial also say the design has left them wanting.

The memorial seems to be the visual opposite of the Vietnam War Memorial. That monument, with its glossy black walls and endless names of the dead etched in white, invites visitors to pause and consider their reflection even as they read. It is an apology.

The World War II memorial will be a place of gleaming waterfalls and glittering stars.

Built around the existing Rainbow Pool on the mall, it is to be a shallow stone crater that extends across 7.4 acres. On either side, there are 43-foot tall concrete triumphal arches, one representing the victory in the Atlantic theater, the other, the Pacific.

Cradling the circle are 56 pillars; one for every state and territory at the time. At the heart of the memorial, fountains spring out of a pool of clear water. At its head, a wall of gleaming golden stars, one for every 1,000 American soldiers who died, stands between two waterfalls.

The design is Friedrich St. Florian’s.

“The challenge was to create a place of serenity to reflect upon the great gift that the World War II generation bestowed upon us,” said Florian, who is a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. “I want future generations to see that a great sacrifice was made to pass on a great way of life and consider that they might be asked to sacrifice.”

Charles Cassel, a 79-year-old veteran who is now an architect, says the memorial lacks dignity and humility. He will not take his grandchildren.

“A memorial is supposed to be a message from one generation to the next,” Cassel said. “It should teach and inspire, but first and foremost it should reflect the spirit of what occurred. This is just a glorified cheer for modern day America.”

Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company