Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Capital disgrace: Still no National WWI Memorial -- May 31, 2018 column


When you’re in Washington, you can visit memorials to veterans of Vietnam, Korea and World War II -- but you won’t find one for the veterans of World War I.   

“If all goes as hoped,” the National World War I memorial will open in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the Great War, I wrote in a column three years ago.

It certainly seemed doable. The last surviving World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, died in 2011, after devoting his last years to pushing for a memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

But all did not go as hoped. In a capital known for its dysfunction, the National World War I Memorial could be Exhibit A.  

For Americans, the Great War lasted one year, seven months and five days – but planning for this national memorial has dragged on more than five years.

The World War One Centennial Commission was created by Congress in 2013 to educate people on what it calls “America’s forgotten war, even though more Americans gave their lives during that war than during Korea and Vietnam combined.”

Nearly 5 million American men and women served and 116,516 died in the “war to end all wars.” 

Congress authorized building the national memorial in Washington in 2014. But squabbling over the design continues, and no opening date has been set. Planners now hope for 2021, Politico reported this week. 

Washington once again could learn from the people in cities and towns around the country, who gathered together to honor their World War I dead in their hometowns. Residents of the District of Columbia built an elegant memorial and bandstand in West Potomac Park in 1931 to honor the more than 26,000 district residents who served in World War I. 

Almost every city and county in Virginia has a memorial to the local men and women who served in the First World War. The 240-foot tall Carillon in Richmond’s Byrd Park is the state’s memorial to the 3,700 Virginians who died in or because of World War I.

In Lynchburg, a “doughboy” statue at the base of Monument Terrace remembers 43 casualties. A granite column outside Alexandria’s Union Station commemorates the city’s World War I dead.

There’s even a National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. But not to include World War I with the memorials to other 20th century wars in Washington would be wrong.

Congress has declared the National Mall complete, so the commission in 2014 chose for the memorial’s site Pershing Park, a 1 ¾-acre trapezoidal space on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets, N.W., a block from the White House.

The park opened in 1981 as part of a plan to spruce up Pennsylvania Avenue. Designed by noted architect M. Paul Friedberg, it was a quiet oasis with a large pool and a waterfall in the summer that became an ice rink in the winter. The pool, ice rink and the kiosk that served snacks have long been closed, and the park has fallen into disrepair.

A 12-foot bronze statue of famous World War I Army General John “Black Jack” Pershing shows him in uniform, his hat in his left hand, his right hand beginning to raise his field glasses as he looks to the west.

In January 2016, Joe Weishaar, an architect-in-training just 25 years old, won a design competition for the national memorial. Last November, bigwigs brought out the gold shovels for a ceremonial groundbreaking.

But there’s a complication. The National Park Service in 2016 designated Pershing Park eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because it once was a fine example of modern landscape design.  

The designation could greatly limit how much of the park can be obliterated to accommodate the new design, which includes a large bronze sculpture by Sabin Howard of the life of a doughboy.   

Every day the design dispute continues is a day school children and tourists can’t visit a national memorial in Washington to learn about the heroes who sacrificed so much in World War I. And that’s a capital disgrace.  

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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