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You can picture it so easily: five massive women of various nationalities, their features carved in gleaming stone. Their faces are familiar, vaguely resembling those of the pert, determined ladies in TV commercials who exclaim so enthusiastically over the newest brand of improved detergent or dental floss. One figure competently holds a baby. Another, like Athena brandishing her sword, carries a broom. A third cradles a cooking pot.
Behold the National Memorial to the American Housewife. Patrick J. Fiore of Chula Vista, Calif., hoped to see it constructed on the Mall somewhere between Lincoln and Washington, just past Vietnam and not as far as Constitution Garden.
In 1987, Fiore wrote his congressman, then-Rep. Jim Bates (D-Calif.), complaining that his nation’s capital contains far too many statues of diplomats, dead presidents, and generals on horseback. He vowed to “lobby and fight for” a memorial to those so unappreciated yet so deserving.
“The backbone of our great country is the family entity, and usually it’s the housewife and mother that keeps the respective family humming. Sure, we husbands and fathers do our share, too, but good mommas are the real catalysts that hold the basic group together,” wrote Fiore, a retired Air Force major. “On Harbor Island here in San Diego, we have a beautiful recent statue of four ethnic tuna-fishermen. It is great for the brave men who started this maritime industry here. Their suffering wives and all other brave hard-working mothers and wives of our great country deserve their honor in a granite tribute in our Nation’s capital.”
Fiore received little more than a polite “no, thank you” from his government. But are housewives less worthy of a memorial than, say, “nuns of the battlefield,” who are honored with a monument at M and Rhode Island NW? Or Maine lobstermen, whose $30,000 Maine Avenue SW memorial was financed by a cookie drive by Girl Scouts from (of course) Maine? Or Joan of Arc, whose memorial stands in Meridian Hill Park?
Indeed, it’s almost amazing that the housewives’ memorial was never constructed. The ’80s were an era of what one National Park Service official calls “monumental chaos.” Shortly after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial went up, the Park Service found itself flooded with proposals for new monuments. It was the start of the third monumental madness in American history. (The first wave—as a look around Washington and just about any other town square on the East Coast will attest—hit just after the Civil War. The second came after the Great Depression.) The ’80s wave got so out of hand that Congress passed the National Commemorative Works Act in 1986, just to make sure the Mall and 6,000 acres of Park Service land in the District wouldn’t be littered with statues.
Some of these proposals are close to being built: The lucky few include FDR, Black Revolutionary War Patriots, Korean War Veterans, Women in Military Service, George Mason, Francis Scott Key, and Japanese-American patriots.
Other proposals are, well, in the circular file. Among the stalled and unlikely projects that can be found in the correspondencerecords of the National Park Service are proposed monuments to military scout dogs, “unborn dead babies,” and victims: victims of Pan Am Flight 103, victims of terrorism, victims of genocide in Armenia. Memorials to the homeless have been proposed, though one wonders if building a shelter might be a better use of funds. Citizens have requested monuments to great humanitarians, to John Wayne, to John Muir, to Howard Taft, to Prince Volodymyr of the Ukraine, to John Adams, French economist Jean Monnet, World War I, Desert Storm, liberators of concentration camps, emergency medical technicians, and letter carriers.
Billy Joe Parker, who gives his address as Mars, America, in Canton, Ga., wanted to build a memorial to watch for the second coming of Christ.
“Thank you for your letter of July 13, 1989, in which you propose a memorial in Washington, D.C., dedicated to watch for the coming of Christ,” wrote a polite John Parsons of the National Park Service. “Presently there is no plaque or national memorial erected in the District of Columbia specifically commemorating the second coming of Christ.”
Unfortunately, Georgia directory assistance was unable to locate Mr. Parker, so it’s impossible to know how he envisioned such a memorial being fashioned.
“Dear President Reagan,” wrote Marsh Perry of Sherman Oaks, Calif., in 1988, suggesting a memorial to the two million Irish who starved and two million more who emigrated in the famine of 1847-48. “With your great Irish heritage, you certainly know the story; there was plenty of food in Ireland at that time. Millions of tons of Irish grain and livestock was exported to England. The fact that the potato crop, the main food staple of the peasant Irish, failed, seemed to cause England no concern. Men, women and children, thrown out of their homes by absentee landlords starved along the roadside, with the ghastly specter of green foam on their mouths, the result of trying to stay alive by eating grass! Here was genocide even more effective than the Nazis’ plan!”
Perry continued, digressing somewhat: “Forty-three million Americans with Irish blood in their veins think it would be wonderful if you would speak to England as you did to the Soviet Union and just say: “Let these people go!’ ”
John F. Ertter Sr. of Augusta, Ga., wrote Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) in 1988, asking for a memorial to Martha Raye, a favorite USO comedian who entertained him and his comrades with Company B, 101st Airmobile Division, Avionics Group at Soc Trang one evening in 1966.
“For 22 years, this memory has stayed with me,” wrote Ertter. “The look on Martha’s face that night was not the smiling face shown on today’s false teeth cleaner commercial. GOD BLESS HER!”
Carl Ireton, from Jerome, Idaho, wrote to Reagan suggesting a John Wayne memorial after reading an article the 40th president wrote about his fellow movie actor in Reader’s Digest.
“I believe that he was a hero off-screen as well as on-screen, and a man who epitomized heroic and moral battles, whether it was taking on the villain without a second thought, or whether he was battling communists trying to take over the motion picture industry, or battling cancer….I think that if a monument were built in his honor that his life might be an inspiration for others.”
There are a few key reasons why some memorials get built—and why the housewives, Martha Rayes, and second comings remain figments: money, Congress, and time.
First, the person who proposes the memorial must either possess or raise enough money to design and build it—forget about congressional pork. But that money is worthless without an act of Congress endorsing the proposal. And to interest the Hill in your project, you need either a great idea and a great lobbyist or great patience and a great pair of Nikes.
Your proposal must then survive the scrutiny of four separate commissions who approve its design and decide where to put the monument: Area One, around the Mall, is reserved for memorials with “preeminent historical and lasting significance.” Area Two, located across the river in Virginia, is to remember things of “lasting historic significance.” (Read: a dumping ground for minor monuments.) There are 24 steps in all. The process, according to Parsons, the National Park Service’s regional director for the National Capital Region, takes at least 10 years.
And there are always unforeseen snags: The National Peace Garden, slated to be built on Hains Point, has been funded, approved—and gonged by the design commission. That’s because the 170-foot-long memorial is so sprawling that you can’t tell it’s meant to depict an olive branch unless, say, you’re looking at it from a helicopter.
Some proposals enjoy congressional support but no money, including memorials for Peace Corps volunteers and for American journalists killed covering wars, a Merchant Marine memorial, a memorial to Haym Salomon, a plaque for Raoul Wallenberg, a Tiananmen Square Memorial Park, a “Goddess of Democracy” statue, a memorial to American astronauts, to the teaching profession, to World War II combat glider pilots, to Philippine scouts, and to a person named Matt W. Ranson.
Congress and cash don’t always equal a monument. A Mahatma Gandhi memorial was nixed by one of the four adjudicating commissions. “The commission felt he didn’t have an impact on the American experience,” Parsons says.
And many languish without a friend in Congress.
The Marvin Gaye Committee is still trying to rename a park for the slain soul singer, preferably on Military Road and Oregon Avenue NW.
“We would like to have a place for people to go to enjoy the memories of this legendary musical genius,” writes Chairperson Geraldine L. Adams. “Marvin’s strong musical messages and positive insight serve as an inspiration to the youth of today as well as the older generation.”
The Marvin Gaye Monument to Sexual Healing? Although it may have a nice ring, it won’t happen, at least not now. According to the 1986 National Park Service regulations governing memorials, Gaye hasn’t been dead long enough: After a famous individual passes on, the Park Service waits 25 years before it will even consider immortalizing that personage in granite. The nation’s government wants to be sure that a person is more than a passing fad. That the honoree will take on gravity and importance as history marches on.
Ditto for events.
“It’s intended to put a lot of time between the event and the memorial,” Parsons says. “It gives a chance to let history comment on it and see if it really is important.”
Thus has the Park Service postponed consideration of proposed memorials to the Challenger disaster and to the uprising in Tiananmen Square.
Be assured, however, that even the most absurd proposal receives bona fide consideration. Parsons and his staff sift through hundreds of proposals—they receive a new one every month, he says—then ferry the chosen few through the decade-long process. Parsons does not take any proposal lightly—except perhaps one frustrated telephone request for a memorial to bureaucrats.
“We are very cautious about this, because what might seem humorous to some is important to others. There’s a Vietnam vet, he’s impoverished, he’s mentally disturbed, and he wants to put a scout dog in front of the three soldiers at the Vietnam memorial….This guy writes us once a year. I hope he gets his money soon. Anyone who writes us a letter is usually pretty serious.
“People who want to have fun should look at the memorials that are already there,” Parsons suggests. “Who is Commander Butt? That’s funny,” he says, referring to the Butt-Millet Memorial on the White House grounds. (If you really want to know, Maj. Archibald W. Butt was a military aide to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft. Francis Davis Millet was a painter and member of the Fine Arts Commission.) “And there’s a memorial to John Erickson, inventor of the screw propeller. He revolutionized the Navy.
“Normally, there’s one person who’s got an idea that’s driving a memorial proposal,” Parsons explains. “Many times, they quit their jobs just to push it, that’s their sole goal in life. They have very little experience in design, construction, fund-raising, or human relations. They’re not polished in the way you’re used to dealing with people in this city. These people are driven. They’re raw.”
Why do they want a memorial?
“An individual or an event affected them emotionally somehow. Whether it’s a poet like Kahlil Gibran or a terrible experience like a war, people don’t want to forget it,” Parsons ventures. “And they want to share their story with the world.”
Let’s hear it, then, for a monument to those dedicated visionaries who were unable to see their monumental proposals realized. They had a dream—even if it never came true.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Peter Hayes.