Concepts for the proposed World War I memorial at Pershing Park, located just two blocks from the White House, continue to evolve. This month, the team designing the capital city’s first national memorial commemorating WWI took comments from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), which pushed for keeping more of the nearly two-acre park created by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, in 1981.
Since first presenting their concept to the planning commission last year, the team — led by architect Joe Weishaar, landscape architect Phoebe McCormick Lickwar, ASLA, and sculptor Sabin Howard — has continued to adapt their proposal in response to feedback. The original concept, The Weight of Sacrifice, which won a competition last year held by the WWI Centennial Commission, sought to replace the sunken pool basin with a lawn to improve access and visibility and install a bas-relief commemorative wall depicting images of the war.
At this month’s meeting, the planning commission reviewed an iteration of the concept that got rid of the lawn, expanded the existing pool, and combined the site’s signature water feature with a 65-foot-long commemorative wall.
NCPC requested the proposed wall be reduced in size in order to maintain views across the park. And they pushed the design team to consider what the plaza would look like with the water feature turned off.
Considering the many changes to the original proposal, council member Evan Cash questioned whether the entire scope of the project had changed. He noted people liked the new concept because it preserved open space, but with on-going edits “…the project has changed to rehabilitation.”
“What started out as a project to look for a new WWI memorial has actually turned into a preservation project of the existing park, with some additional elements,” he said. “I just think all the problems we’ve been talking about are linked to the fact this has been a design that has been so overworked.”
The planning commission approved the concept, with many qualifications, and the team will now move further refine the proposal and incorporate requested elements. Changes to the existing park will also need to be approved by the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) and the National Park Service (NPS).
The park was originally designed by Friedberg, who is also known for Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis. Friedberg’s views on the new concept were shared with the commission by Margo Barajas, a representative of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), a group that has advocated for restoring, rather than redesigning Pershing Park, which has been determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This means there is a case for preserving and restoring the park.
After the latest iteration was presented to the CFA in May, Friedberg noted he was disappointed with the new concept, taking particular issue with the commemorative wall, saying it is being “forced into the space and obliterating the scale.”
Friedberg’s original design is a multi-level space with a sunken pool and water feature with a fountain that housed a Zamboni to maintain the pool as an ice rink during the winter. The site’s planting was later revised by Oehme, van Sweden. The site also includes a small, presently-unused kiosk structure that once doubled as an ice-skate rental station; movable furniture; and a statue of the WWI hero.
The new concept replaces the kiosk with a flag pole and adds a walkway across the pool to allow visitors more intimate access and a more tactile connection to the commemorative wall.
Debate has waged on over the aesthetic and functional merits of Pershing Park and the addition of a WWI memorial. The site has been poorly maintained and fallen into disrepair over the years. Many also find the park difficult to access. Critics of the new plans, including TCLF, have sought to reduce changes to the site and instead restore the park to its original intent.
The addition of a national WWI memorial was hard-fought by advocates on the WWI Centennial Commission who originally wanted the commemoration on the National Mall. Met with opposition from Congress and the National Park Service, the Centennial Commission eventually settled on Pershing as the selected site. Once approved by Congress in 2014, the Centennial Commission held an international design competition for the memorial. Last January, they announced Weishaar’s design as the winner of five finalists among hundred of entries.
Unlike World War II and the Vietnam War, World War I is the only major US conflict of the 20th century not commemorated with a national monument in Washington. There is a World War I memorial on the Mall, but not a national one (it is specific to local DC soldiers who fought in the war). And some critics say, that’s OK.
As The Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott argues, DC’s many smaller WWI memorials embedded throughout the city offer another form of remembrance. The monuments are specific and distributed, and, as such, Kennicott writes, “there is no one-stop shopping, no simple, quick way to ‘pay respects’ and move on; but there is a rich history lesson, not just about the war itself, but about how memory and monuments have changed over the past century.”
Regardless, plans for the memorial will continue to move forward, with hopes for a final dedication on November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the war.