Memorial to World War II
A national memorial to World War II will soon be built. Maybe . . .
By Jay Tolson US News
'Imperialist kitsch" foisted upon the American public by a "little
group of willful men." An architectural eyesore that violates
principles of historic preservation and the clean vistas of the
National Mall. To hear the charges of some critics, pundits, and
organizations, you'd never guess they were talking about a
monument dedicated to one of America's finest hours. But the
growing controversy is not over the idea of the National World War
II Memorial, which most Americans agree is long overdue. It's over
the site and design, and it's quickly become an informal trial of
conflicting views on public art and the proper use of public
space-and on who should make decisions about both.
Starting this Veterans Day, work is supposed to begin on Friedrich
St.Florian's design: a sunken plaza with two arches, 56 pillars, and
other elements around a rebuilt Rainbow Pool at the eastern end of
the Reflecting Pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the
Washington Monument. So what's so bad about that? On the
design front, say some, almost everything. Paul Goldberger of the
New Yorker, for example, pronounced the plan an "aesthetic
disaster" with the "power neither of great classical architecture .
nor of pure abstract forms." Though he has been seconded by
other critics, just as many others, including those of the
Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, say the style is
appropriate. "That's a worldwide style, called stripped classical in
this country, and it evokes that era," says Robert Campbell of the
Boston Globe, who also served on the evaluation board for the
On the Mall. Critics have also voiced concerns about the
structure's impact on the Mall. In a letter to the secretary of the
interior last week, a review panel of the Advisory Council on
Historic Preservation (an independent federal agency) wrote,
among other reservations, that the "visual screen" of the pillars
could interrupt the open vistas and flow of the Mall. But supporters
say the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning
Commission had earlier addressed such concerns, reducing the
scale and changing many of the elements of the original design.
Memorial campaign spokesman Mike Conley says that the 17-foot
pillars are to be arrayed around the opposite ends of the plaza,
flanking the 41-foot arches and below the existing tree line, leaving
open sightlines across the middle of the memorial. Some critics
have also asserted that the new memorial will destroy an older
existing memorial, a violation of preservation principles, and will do
so in ways that are legally questionable. In rebuttal, historian
Michael Richman has documented that the Rainbow Pool was not
part of any original memorial plan, and all review bodies claim to
have complied with statutory guidelines.
And it's hard to make the case that this is an elitist conspiracy
when it was World War II veteran Roger Durbin, a rural letter
carrier, who got the ball rolling in 1987 by persuading his
congressional representative, Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur, to
push for a national memorial. That's not to say that all vets lined up
behind the proposed memorial after the legislation was signed into
law in 1993. But the passing away of that generation of
veterans-now at the rate of something close to 1,000 a day-has
lent urgency to the cause, and the memorial fundraising campaign
has already closed in on its target of $100 million.
Controversies about memorials on the Mall are certainly nothing
new. They didn't even begin with the tempest over the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial. Editorialists and others tried unsuccessfully to
quash the proposal for a memorial to Ulysses S. Grant in 1907. J.
Carter Brown, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, thinks
there is even less reason that "Mall purists" should succeed in
preventing the newest addition. "Washington shouldn't be allowed
to be a nostalgia bath for the 19th century," he says. "After all,
was at that moment, between 1941 and '45, that America came of
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[Bruce K. Melson]