What is going on with Washington, D.C.‘s World War I Memorial?
On November 9, the World War I Centennial Commission hosted a symbolic groundbreaking for the WWI Memorial in Pershing Park, a public square designed by M. Paul Friedberg just blocks from the White House. The groundbreaking last week, a day ahead of Veteran’s Day (observed), was purely ceremonial, as the project hasn’t gotten the requisite approvals or permitting.
Some say that the WWI Centennial Commission, the government group in charge of the memorial’s construction, is now looking to place the memorial at the National Mall, but the Commission maintains that there are no plans to relocate the memorial at this time.
It was just in July of this year that D.C.’s planning board, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), voted in favor of adding a memorial to Pershing Park, and allowing the memorial to move forward from its concept stage to design development. The vote allowed the WWI Centennial Commission and the National Park Service to work with the winning design team to refine the memorial. (At press time, the NCPC could not be reached for comment on the memorial plans.)
The winning design for the WWI Memorial, selected in January 2016 after a two-phase competition, is titled The Weight of Sacrifice, and was submitted by GWWO Architects, New York sculptor Sabin Howard, and Chicago architect Joseph Weishaar. Their proposal would replace an onsite kiosk and cut a path through Friedberg’s concrete pool, a defining feature of the 1.8-acre park.
While many in landscape architecture and preservation circles acknowledge the importance of a WWI memorial, they believe the memorial design will alter Pershing Park beyond recognition. In a letter to the NCPC, Friedberg called the memorial’s defining feature “a persistent and intrusive one note wall that’s being forced into the space, thus obliterating the scale and meaning of the original design.” The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts had told the WWI Commission in March of this year to come up with a design that wouldn’t overshadow the original late modern landscape.
For his part, the director of the WWI Memorial Foundation would like a memorial on the National Mall, not Pershing Park.
“We’re 100 percent for the National Mall,” said David DeJonge, president and co-founder of the WWI Memorial Foundation. The park, he said, is a half-hour walk from the other war memorials on the mall, and the park’s landmark protections would make it hard for the memorial to be realized in the way stakeholders desire.
At the ceremonial groundbreaking last week, Dejonge told Curbed DC that the WWI Centennial Commission had nixed Pershing as the site for the memorial. However, the WWI Commission’s Colonel Tom Moe said Pershing is still under consideration as a memorial site. WWI Memorial Foundation Co-Founder and Centennial Commission Vice-Chair Edwin Fountain added that the group hopes the memorial will remain in the park.
The WWI Centennial Commission echoed Colonel Moe’s statement. “No. We are not moving the memorial. That is an erroneous blog post,” said Chris Isleib, director of public affairs at the WWI Centennial Commission, referring to the Curbed piece.
To support his statement, Isleib emailed a resolution to The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) from a March 22, 2017 Centennial Commission meeting that outlined the group’s stance on the National Mall location: “We would obviously like to consider the option of being on the National Mall, but Congress ultimately decides the issue of the memorial’s location. … Congress authorized the memorial for Pershing Park.” At the meeting, the 12-member commission voted to consider the National Mall—if the option becomes available.
However, shortly before the November 9 groundbreaking last week, according to DeJonge, the WWI Commission again discussed moving the memorial to the National Mall. Isleib at first declined to comment on the encounter, then followed up to say he did not know if any conversation had taken place.
DeJonge is hoping to leverage federal law to site the memorial on the National Mall. The former Main Navy and Munitions Building, which sits over Constitution Gardens, was home base for WWI planning headquarters, and given the connection between WWI and the Mall, DeJonge believes a section of the Antiquities Act of 1906 could be leveraged to build the memorial. Among other provisions, the law allows presidents to create national monuments on federal property. To that end, his group is petitioning President Donald J. Trump to authorize the building of the memorial on the National Mall, which is overseen by the National Parks Service. (He outlined the Foundation’s plans in a press release last week.)
As of now, the memorial is the early stages of design development, and it hasn’t gotten final approvals from two key agencies, the NCPC or the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Nor have any building permits been issued. Any D.C. memorial must comply with the Commemorative Works Act, a federal law that guides the construction of monuments on the National Mall and other areas, and gain approvals from the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission (NCMAC). Whatever site is selected, the WWI memorial still faces a stringent and lengthy approvals process moving forward.