Depending on your perspective, Pershing Park, which stands on a central spot on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. is either a unique, Modern landscape that deserves to be protected under the National Register of Historic Places, or an outdated, unwelcoming park that fails to meet the needs of its visitors and needs to be redesigned. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) sees Pershing Park, which was completed in 1981 but has since fallen into a state of disrepair, as worthy of rehabilitation. Designed by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, with a subsequent planting design by Oehme, van Sweden, it was once a striking urban park and it houses a protected memorial to WWI General John Pershing. But the leaders of the World War I Memorial Centennial Commission, which was created under an Act of Congress, would like to see a new design for the site — the winner of its national design competition: The Weight of Sacrifice by Joseph Weishaar, a 25-year-old architect, landscape architect Phoebe McCormick Lickwar, ASLA, and sculptor Sabin Howard. Their more traditional design aims to improve access and use bas-relief on 10-foot-high walls to tell a rich story of World War I. The commission has raised about $6 million so far for an effort they say will cost $38 million. Meanwhile, all parties are awaiting word from the National Park Service, which should decide shortly on whether the park will be included in the National Register of Historic Places. If it is, the commission’s ability to alter Friedberg’s design will be greatly circumscribed.
In a briefing at the National Press Club, WWI Memorial Centennial Commission vice chair Edwin Fountain said the style of the park should be “recognizable to the veterans of the war. It should appear timeless.” But he added that the new park, if it moves forward, will not be a “living memorial” for veterans, as the last WWI veteran died 5 years ago. Instead, it will be a commemorative, educational place that allows both children of veterans to grieve and visitors to learn about the war.
Architect Joe Weishaar added the site should also be a great place to have lunch and work as a neighborhood park, which he conceded it does well enough now. But he said the park’s sunken center is a “blind spot” and he wants to raise that up and turn it into a lawn, giving people more green space (see image at top). The sculptures, which will run across a 10-foot-high expanse, would be a tactile, sensory experience. Sculptor Sabin Howard envisions bas-relief in three segments that deal with the time prior to the war, during the war, and then the aftermath. He wants to create an “uplifting story of transformation, showing how noble the human race can be.” He wants visitors to have a “visceral response to the emotional aspects of the war,” but to leave with the idea that “there is sense of unity in the universe.” Weishaar and Howard also want the sculpture’s movements through periods of chaos to order to be reflected in a new planting design.
While Fountain, Weishaar, and Howard imagine a new design for the site, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president and CEO of TCLF, Darwina Neal, FASLA, former president of ASLA, and others, want to see a protected and rehabilitated Pershing Park, which has deteriorated due to decades of lapsed maintenance. The fountain, which used to a great draw, is now defunct. It used to become an ice-skating rink in winter, but the underlying infrastructure that made that happen has been moribund for years.
Cracked, uneven pavers are now one of the defining features on the ground. And lots of the trees aren’t in good shape either. But Birnbaum and others argue it could once again become the draw it clearly once was if it was rehabilitated, which would involve “making some changes, but keeping the signature and character-defining features intact.”
In a recent release, Birnbaum said the commission knew the park may end up on the National Register of Historic Places, but they decided to go ahead with their own designs anyhow. “They opted for conflict over collaboration.”
When asked to share his most recent thoughts after the National Press Club briefing, Birnbaum elaborated: “A critical failing of the WWI Memorial design process has been a lack of collaboration by WWI Commission, which has created a severe threat to an important work by M. Paul Friedberg, the most recent recipient of the ASLA Medal. WWI Commission vice-chair Edwin Fountain stated at the March 2, 2016 National Press Club event that he and the commission are ‘in conversations’ with TCLF, which suggests there’s an ongoing dialogue – that is simply not true. In fact, in my only substantive conversation with Mr. Fountain – a telephone call after the competition was first announced – it was clear that Mr. Fountain had no interest in anything we had to say about how a sympathetic rehabilitation of this significant Friedberg design, which we believe will be determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, could also satisfy the aims and objectives of the commission.”
More collaboration among all parties will be needed after the National Park Service announces its decision. And Fountain partly acknowledged this, saying that a public regulatory process is underway, and any changes to the park need to be approved by the Commission on Fine Arts, National Capital Planning Commission, and, finally, the National Park Service, which manages the park. Whatever the outcome, one long-term question is: can this park be well-maintained moving forward? If not, we may be back to where we are now 30 years in the future.