IGNORING a pending court case, environmental concerns, historical sense of place, aesthetics, and some passionate veterans, Congress voted this week to put a World War II memorial on the National Mall. While there are few groups more deserving of a monument than the fighting corps of “the greatest generation,” such an honor is best bestowed thoughtfully and with an eye to providing the most appropriately respectful space and design.
The middle of the Mall is not it for many reasons – first because the jarringly huge, 7.4-acre monument with its 56 17-foot-high columns, built around what is now the Rainbow Pool, will break the continuity of greensward, dubbed “America’s front yard.”
“People come to the Mall to understand who we are as a country and what we aspire to,” says Judy Feldman, co-chair of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. “War is not what we aspire to.”
Her group has a federal suit pending that challenges the legality of the monument’s encroachment on the Lincoln Memorial, but Congress short-circuited her day in court.
Caught up in the national World War II nostalgia fever, fired by books and films and the release of the movie “Pearl Harbor” this weekend, lawmakers voted emotionally instead of rationally.
No one – with the exception of 15 gutsy, clear-eyed members of the House of Representatives – wanted to appear anti-vet and block what seemed like the perfect Memorial Day gift to aged heroes.
Nor did legislators consider the possible hazards of ground water on the Mall site – pumping it out during construction could cause the soil to give way under the Washington Monument and could harm surrounding trees.
So emotional was the atmosphere on the Hill that one version of the House bill called for the monument to go up without government oversight. “That would have been a catastrophe,” says District of Columbia Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, who led the effort to return oversight authority to the National Capital Planning Commission in the final bill.
Holmes Norton, like other opponents of the Mall site, wanted the monument built in nearby Constitution Gardens, which the planning commission originally chose in 1995. But over-zealous promoters pressed their grand vision and won with a design so militaristic it has been likened to Third Reich architecture.
“I would gladly give up my Purple Heart for doing away with that horrible desecration. …” veteran Clark Ashby, 78, told a crowd of protesters outside the Capitol before the vote.
Too bad lawmakers weren’t paying attention. As an ill-conceived monument takes shape, they’ll wish they had.
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