The Washington Post, “Memorial Center Design Clears Hurdle”

Dear Coalition Friends:

Today’s Washington Post reports (see below) on conditional approval granted yesterday by the Commission of Fine Arts for the design concept of the Vietnam Memorial Visitor Center. An Associated Press story is published in today’s Washington Times.

It is almost impossible to understand the commissioners’ and the Coalition’s concerns about the design concept without seeing the plans, sections, and views shown at the hearing–its substantial size which has grown recently from 25,000 square feet to 34,100 square feet,* its ramping structure that mimics the experience of the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and its scarring effect on the open landscape of the National Mall. One such view is shown in The Washington Post. In coming days we will scan the more informative renderings and post them on our website and let you know when they are available.

Also noted at the end of the article is the cool reception commissioners gave to the controversial proposal to build the headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security on the historic St. Elizabeths campus.

*When originally proposed in 2000, the legislation called for a 1,200-square-foot “temporary education center,” see H.R. 5268, 106th Congress.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Memorial Center Design Clears Hurdle

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007; B01

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts gave conditional approval yesterday to the design concept for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, an underground museum and educational complex on the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial.

The commission, which advises the government on architecture in the capital, gave the nod, despite concerns about the size of the facility and its location across the street from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. One commissioner worried that the center might dilute the emotional impact of the Wall.

In 2003, Congress approved construction of the center on 5.2 acres west of the Wall and just north of the Lincoln Memorial. The National Capital Planning Commission approved the site last year.

In May, officials announced that the center would feature, among other things, a wall of photos of the war’s dead and an artifact collection.

Yesterday brought the first detailed look at the preliminary design concept preferred by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which is building the center, and the National Park Service, which will operate it.

The design, by the New York City firm of Polshek Partnership Architects, calls for a 34,100-square-foot structure dug two stories into the ground and reached by a 280-foot-long entrance ramp. There would be a sunken courtyard, a facade of dark stone and glass and perhaps a reflecting pool.

Inside would be a bookstore and a resource facility in addition to multiple levels of displays, including photographs, a timeline and some of the 100,000 artifacts that have been left at the Wall, which marks the 25th anniversary of its dedication next month.

The idea is “to teach America’s youth about citizenship, duty, loyalty, honor,” said Jan C. Scruggs, president and founder of the memorial fund, who was present but did not testify yesterday.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a “shrine, more than a monument,” he said, and needs the center close by to provide context for a fading era.

The fund has raised $14 million of the estimated $75 million to $100 million cost of the center. Fund officials have said the full cost must be raised before construction can start. Groundbreaking is expected in 2010, with completion 18 months later.

Ann Sherman-Wolcott of York, Pa., whose son, Rex, was killed at age 18 in Vietnam in 1969, told the six commissioners yesterday that she feared she would not live to see the center built. “Please, don’t deprive me of that honor,” she said.

Earl A. Powell III, the commission chairman, noted that the commission was not meeting to approve the project, which had been approved already, only the design concept. “It is an odd circumstance for us to vote for a [project] that has been effectively pre-approved by a higher authority,” he said.

During the meeting, held at the National Building Museum, Powell asked to hear only from witnesses who wanted to comment on the design.

Judy Scott Feldman, chairman of Rockville-based National Coalition to Save Our Mall, told the panel that the design was wrong for the site and should not be approved.

“It causes serious adverse effects to the National Mall, the Lincoln Memorial historic landscape and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial itself,” she said. “By accommodating the visitor, the designers have had to carve up the historic landscape of the National Mall.”

Several commissioners, though commending the architects and voting in the majority to approve, also voiced reservations.

“The Wall is the most evocative place on the mall,” said Pamela Nelson, the vice chairman. She worried that throngs visiting the center might diminish the solemnity of the Wall, just across Bacon Drive. The black granite memorial bears the names of more than 58,000 Americans who were killed or declared missing during the war.

The architects said the center would probably get 1.5 million visitors a year.

“It’s big,” Nelson said. “If it gets . . . smaller rather than bigger, my problems might be addressed.”

Commissioner John Belle said he wonders whether the center might “dilute the impact of the Wall itself.”

James S. Polshek, founding partner of his company, said that comparisons with the Wall were inevitable but that the Wall was designed for reverence and the center for information.

As for complaints about the size of the center, Sherman-Wolcott asked after the meeting, “Why didn’t they make the war smaller?”

The commissioners said they would send Polshek a letter detailing their concerns. Powell said the concept probably would be revised and would come before the commission again. He did not say when the commission might give final approval.

In other business, the commission gave a cool reception yesterday to a plan to build a giant headquarters complex for the Department of Homeland Security on the west campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a historic hilltop site in Anacostia.

The plan has faced strong opposition from historic preservationists and others who fear that the construction of buildings for 14,000 employees will overwhelm the site, valued for its architecture and views.

“The general sense is there’s 20 pounds of potatoes in a 10-pound bag,” Powell said.

He urged the General Services Administration, which is coordinating the project, to consult further with preservationists and other critics and return with an update.

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

 

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