Post Reports on the Political Maneuvering Behind Visitor Center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Dear Coalition Friends:

In an article in last Friday’s (October 2nd) Washington Post entitled “Scrugg’s Underground Movement,” reporter Monte Reel described some of the political maneuvering behind the scenes between Jan Scruggs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the Congress, and John Parsons (with others) of the National Park Service (NPS), regarding the proposed visitor center/museum for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It’s a pretty good piece, excerpted below.

Here are a few historical tidbits: Mr. Parsons of the NPS originally called the visitor center a terrible idea. At that time the legislation called for a temporary visitor center, to be evaluated after 10 years (and then possibly removed). But subsequently the legislation’s wording was changed, making it a permanent and underground center, paid for and built by Scruggs’s group, and then handed over to the National Park Service. At this, the NPS opposition softened. However, earlier this spring, Park Service officials testified against locating it next to the Wall. In yet another apparent reversal, now that position seems to have changed.

Please note in bold in paragraph 7 below, that Mr. Parsons calls the WWII Memorial’s 7.4-acre expanse of stone, concrete, and asphalt a “landscape solution”:

Scruggs’s Underground Movement

Wall Founder’s Tough Tactics Give Educational Center Extra Momentum

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, October 3, 2003; Page B01

The American Institute of Architects a few weeks ago was sent a letter urging it to consider the corrugated aluminum trailers on the Lincoln Memorial grounds when awarding its annual design prizes. The letter described the snack stands as being similar to those found “in many of the older American mobile home parks.”

It was signed, “Sincerely, Jan C. Scruggs, Esq., president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc.”

Why would the founder of the Wall go to such lengths to lampoon the regional office of the National Park Service and mock its stewardship of the Mall? Because Scruggs is trying to build a new underground educational center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and he sees the Park Service officials in charge of planning on the Mall as his main opponents. It was his way, he said, of trying to get under their skin and to highlight what he considers inconsistent planning and design standards.

Scruggs’s methods might not be making him many friends at the local Park Service’s offices, but his campaign for the center seems to be making some progress — or at least more progress since the idea was first pitched three years ago on Capitol Hill. Each year, the bill has stalled.

The Senate in July unanimously passed a bill calling for the educational center, and a House version sponsored by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.) last week passed out of committee and awaits a hearing on the floor. In past years, former senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) had blocked the bill from coming to a vote on the Senate floor.

…Like others in his office, Parsons said he isn’t against the idea of the underground center wholly, but he said the plans as currently outlined present potential problems. The aboveground portion of the center would mar the landscape between the Lincoln Memorial and Constitution Gardens, Parsons said, and detract from the emotional and inspirational impact of the Wall itself.

“With landscape solutions — like the memorials for the Korean War, Vietnam, World War II — you have a great deal of difficulty intruding on that design with a museum,” Parsons said. “The FDR Memorial originally had a museum concept that was discouraged and disapproved. We said, ‘Wait a minute — this is supposed to be inspirational, not educational. If you have something that starts to upstage the emotional aspect of this landscape, you’re going over the line.’ ”

The Park Service’s official line on the Vietnam education center is that it supports looking at the idea of an underground center. According to a 2002 letter that Mainella sent to Scruggs, “We look forward to working with you on an appropriately sized and sited underground facility, one that is acceptable visually and has a minimum of distracting qualities to the visitor experience.”

…During a Senate hearing in 2001, Parsons recited his objections to an aboveground center. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) asked Parsons if there might be any alternatives.

“So I made the mistake of saying, ‘Perhaps we could do it underground,’ ” Parsons said. “That’s why Jan says it’s my idea. But, of course, you can’t get to an underground building unless you go through something on top, and at best that’s something that will be substantial. You’d need an elevator system, an escalator or stair system, then a redundant set of stairs for emergency exit.”

…Because the House version of the bill differs somewhat from the Senate version, additional work would remain to reconcile the two versions. The Senate version includes language that would prevent the addition of future memorials on the Mall — a provision that in the past has met opposition by some supporting future memorial projects. Also, the House version that passed out of committee states that the center would be run by a partnership between Scruggs’s fund and the Park Service — similar to the agreement that dictates upkeep of the Wall…

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

Now for a somewhat different take on Mr. Parsons’ stewardship of the Mall: The September issue of Landscape Architecture magazine, published by the American Society of Landscape Architects (but not available on the ASLA website), sings Parsons’ praises as the “protector of the Mall”. The ASLA is awarding Mr. Parsons the LaGasse Medal this month in New Orleans, in recognition of “landscape architects who have made notable contributions to the management and conservancy of natural resources or public lands.”

The article, in the “Shared Wisdom” section, is titled “Contested Terrain. John Parsons protects the Mall for the people and from the people,” by Susan Hines. Here are a few quotes from the ASLA journal. Reading them is truly a surreal experience for those of us involved in the WWII Memorial fight and now the Washington Monument tunnel and walls project:

…”Parsons is extremely consensus oriented. “Most of the time we spend in this office,” he says, ….”is seeking other peoples’ opinions of the project.”

“That’s what I do the most,” says Parsons. “Develop alternatives that can make it through and satisfy the majority…”

“His relationships with citizen groups as well as local, state, and national officials are key to his success in protecting and expanding regional parks and to his ability to safeguard the design integrity of the Mall.”

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