A new national memorial honoring the soldiers who died in World War I may eventually be built in the District, but its planners will need to get approval from a lot of stakeholders first. One of the bodies overseeing the process has now weighed in—and the answer may not be what the memorial’s backers had hoped to hear.
Earlier this month, the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission submitted its five finalist designs for a National World War I Memorial to the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, a federal agency that advises the federal and District governments on architecture, landscape, and other aesthetic concerns in the nation’s capital. Each of those five designs represents a new memorial that will be carved out of Pershing Park, now a dilapidated site on Pennsylvania Ave. NW between Freedom Plaza and the White House that was the site of a mass arrest scandal in 2002.
Pershing Park wasn’t always as scuzzy as it looks today. It was designed by M. Paul Friedberg, a titan of modernist landscape architecture, along with Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, a landscape firm that is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the National Building Museum. The park, which opened in 1981, was built to honor U.S. Army General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, making it a de facto World War I memorial. Perhaps more importantly for District residents, it used to be a beloved urban park: a sylvan retreat framed by New American Garden–style landscaping and a modernist step-wise plaza leading down to a pond.
Each of the five finalist designs for a new National World War I Memorial pays lip-service to the significance of Pershing Park while fundamentally paving over its defining features. In a letter dated November 30, the CFA praises the World War One Centennial Commission’s mission but questions the contradictory message in its selection of finalists. CFA Secretary Thomas Luebke writes:
The [Commission of Fine Arts] members observed that the competition designs appear to proceed from the underlying assumption that the existing park design is a failure, whereas its problems are the direct result of inadequate maintenance. They commented that many features of the park—such as the berms and other topographical elements which help create a sheltered space at the center of the park and which are eliminated in most of these schemes—are the very characteristics of the design that make the existing park an appropriate setting for a contemplative memorial. Thus, they criticized the competition program for understating the value and importance of the existing park design, and they encouraged conceiving of the project as a new memorial within an existing park.
Is it back to the drawing board for the World War I Memorial? It’s too early to say. The World War One Centennial Commission takes its portfolio to the National Capital Planning Commission on Thursday for review. As it stands, none of the five finalist designs comes close to complying with the wishes of the CFA—which appears to call for restoring the historic, contemplative park that Pershing Park once was.
Photo by Flickr user Tim Evanson under a Creative Commons License