WWII Memorial in the Media: The Controversy

The controversy over the World War II Memorial, completed in 2014, was never about the value of the memorial itself. It was about the choice in 1995 of the sensitive Rainbow Pool location between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and about the original 1997 design. And about design revisions in 1998 and 1999, which required destruction of part of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to be replaced by walls, pillars, and granite arches across the open vista. The controversy involved members of Congress, media, architecture critics, and commentators from across the political spectrum.

Read a host of news stories and commentary from across the country below.

See also this timeline and the photo gallery showing construction and dedication of the Memorial in 2014.

The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and Rainbow Pool before construction of the World War II Memorial.
The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and oval-shaped Rainbow Pool (location chosen for the World War II Memorial) before construction of the World War II Memorial


Background: Congress designated as sponsor of the memorial the American Battle Monuments Commission, the agency charged with creating and maintaining U.S. war memorials and cemeteries around the world. Because the chosen site was on land managed by the National Park Service, the NPS was the memorial’s co-sponsor. In 1997, Architect Friedrich St. Florian, an Austrian-born American professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, won the memorial design competition with a concept that envisioned a large sunken plaza surrounded by 40-foot-tall columns surrounded by 50-foot-high earthen berms intended to house museum space.

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle led the opposition to St. Florian’s original design that required cutting down of hundreds of trees and would overpower the site and block views to and from the Lincoln Memorial. Federal design review agencies — the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission —  rejected that 1997 design. A “revised” design concept unveiled in 1998 — which is the basis of the final memorial design — eliminated the berms and columns and proposed instead a sunken plaza, framed by two arched pavilions, surrounded by a open-design metal fence.  This new concept greatly reduced the mass and height of the elements, after which Congress loosened its opposition. However, in 1999, after criticism that the revised concept made World War II look like “a walk in the park,” the memorial designer replaced the see-through metallic rail with 17-foot-tall granite columns adorned with metal wreaths.

Approval of the design in 2000 spurred two actions: a federal agency judgement against that approved design and a lawsuit by local civic groups. The federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in 2000 found that the design has “serious and unresolved adverse effects on the preeminent historic character of the National Mall.” These finding formed the basis of the lawsuit filed against the federal review agencies by the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a WWII veterans group, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and the DC Preservation League. However, Congress took action against the lawsuit with legislation that states, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the World War II memorial shall be constructed expeditiously at the dedicated Rainbow Pool site. The decision to locate the memorial at the Rainbow Pool site and the actions by the (federal commissions) shall not be subject to administrative or judicial review.” Memorial construction began in 2000 and was completed in 2014. Read the controversy in greater detail at the timeline.