Pershing Park
Pershing Park

Joseph Weishaar, a 25-year-old junior architect from Chicago, performed an architectural balancing act to win the competition to design a new national World War I memorial in Pershing Park.

His design “The Weight of Sacrifice,” with low walls around a rectangular lawn and a minimalist plaza, is clean enough to feel contemporary. But the walls will be made of bronze, carved by the sculptor Sabin Howard into classical bas-reliefs and etched with quotations—a move that has won over traditionalists.

Chosen from more than 350 entries, Weishaar’s scheme unites a celebration of victory with mourning the fallen. The raised central lawn and heroic “Brothers in Arms” bas-relief ease the weight of dark, downward-sloping walls, reminiscent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In other words, this is a very well-calibrated design.

Whether equipoise should be the main virtue of a war memorial, though, is another matter.

In 2014, Congress authorized the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission to build a national memorial at Pershing Park, on Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street NW. (D.C. already has its own memorial to the war, a small marble rotunda on the west side of the Mall that was restored several years ago.) Reading the competition brief makes it clear that Weishaar delivered exactly what the commission wanted.

The District of Columbia War Memorial, D.C.s own memorial to the war, was restored several years ago.s own memorial to the war, was restored several years ago.

The brief asked entrants to both “honor the heroism and valor” of those who served and “commemorate the tragedy and magnitude of loss suffered.” More to the point, it specified that to be “timeless,” the winning design should have “appropriate interpretive elements including (but not limited to) figurative or other sculpture, traditional monument forms, and relevant quotations or other texts.”

Another thing the commission wanted was to remake the entire park into a new memorial, rather than place a new memorial in it. The refashioned Pershing Park, they said, “will be a national World War I Memorial, in contrast to today’s park that only incidentally includes a small memorial to General [John J.] Pershing.”

The current park was designed in the early 1980s by the acclaimed modernist landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, with plantings by the equally acclaimed firm of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates. It used to be a lovely plaza that stepped down to a sunken pool, which served as an ice-skating rink in winter. A statue of the war’s greatest U.S. commander, General Pershing, stands in the southwest corner, flanked by carved stone walls.

Today, the park is a mess, and preservationists at The Cultural Landscape Foundation are rallying to save it. They blame its sad state on years of deferred maintenance. They believe that rehabilitating the park would make it an attractive urban oasis again. And they point out that the park already commemorates World War I. But the commission regards the Pershing memorial as inadequate, and finalists in the design contest treated the park basically as a tabula rasa.

Weishaar’s design, coherent but wan, is the best option from a disappointing shortlist. One runner-up was a mass of land-form squiggles, far too busy for the 1.8-acre site. Another proposed embedding dozens of large photo display-boxes in the ground, an admittedly innovative idea that would have no doubt turned into a maintenance nightmare and liability issue as people tripped over the metal frames. A neoclassical scheme was super-sized and seemed to fight against the axis of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Jurors pointed out many of these problems, making you wonder how some of the entries even got to the finalist stage.

Only one shortlisted design had a strong and resonant concept, and that was “Plaza to the Forgotten War” by the Wisconsin architects Andrew Cesarz, Brian Johnsen, and Sebastian Schmaling. (Note: I served on an architectural jury with Johnsen several years ago.) The initial idea called for a grid of bronze markers that suggested the rows of crosses in American military cemeteries in France, like Meuse-Argonne. But changes made in the second stage of the competition diluted the concept beyond recognition.

That design at least grappled with a question the other entries on the shortlist didn’t: What kind of memorial is appropriate for World War I? It’s not an easy question to answer, and not just because of how much time has passed since the war ended. When an ArchDaily writer asked what made Weishaar’s design fitting as a World War I memorial, the designer cited the period text and images that will appear on the walls.

The Great War was caused by unstable diplomatic alliances and a naval arms race. It involved a bewildering number of powers and fronts; many key battles, like the Battle of the Somme, happened before the U.S. entered the fray. The war’s American legacy is significant, complex, and not easily reducible to stirring images or phrases.

It is true that World War I is our forgotten war. More American combatants—some 116,000—were killed in 1917 and 1918 than in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. Yet other countries bore much heavier losses: the United Kingdom, 800,000; France, 1.3 million. In the U.K., there is no question about what the Great War represents. It stands for tragedy on a terrible scale, and the collision of modern horrors like trench warfare and poison gas with old notions of valor.

In Britain, millions of people wear poppy lapel pins in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday in November. On that day, dignitaries and veterans assemble at the Cenotaph, close to Downing Street in central London. After Big Ben chimes 11, beginning two minutes of silence, they lay poppy wreaths at the monument’s base.

The Cenotaph was designed in 1919 by the great British architect Edwin Lutyens. It is simple: a broad shaft of white stone lifting an empty tomb, unadorned except for wreaths carved into its top and sides. It hardly has a site, standing in the middle of a city street. Its inscription is three words long: “The Glorious Dead.”

The understated eloquence of the form—suggesting nobility as it steps up to the sky, holding a container for the collective sense of loss—makes the Cenotaph profoundly moving, and it has been reproduced countless times around the world.

Designers entering the Pershing Park competition were encouraged to study the Cenotaph, Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and other memorials from the interwar years, including the hundreds of small ones that dot the United States. Often consisting of a single statue or column rising from a patch of ground, these local memorials are also charged with emotion. Unfortunately, they were ignored in a contest that prioritized spatial reach and copious historical interpretation over simplicity.

At this point, it looks doubtful whether the memorial will proceed as designed. The National Park Service has signaled that Pershing Park meets the criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. A historic designation would put the park’s key design elements off limits. As they should be: Friedberg’s Pershing Park is an important and successful cultural landscape. With adequate care, it could be the modernist jewel of a revived Pennsylvania Avenue.

Once the commission and regulatory bodies have gone a few rounds, the scope of Weishaar’s design will change and very possibly shrink. The chances of a memorial opening by 2018 seem slim. That’s inconvenient for the commission’s fundraising—it still needs to raise at least $20 million—but some breathing room will be a good thing.

The goals and parameters of this project need a rethink. There is ample room in Pershing Park for a new memorial and a thoughtful restoration of Friedberg’s design. More time could also yield a memorial that transcends generic tropes. Weishaar has proved he can design to a brief. He just needs a new, narrower one.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery