WWI memorial plan drawing critics in D.C.
WASHINGTON — Members of the National Capital Planning Commission raised questions about plans for a new World War I memorial Thursday, questioning how the proposal could best complement the existing park’s design.
The federal planning agency asked numerous questions about a proposed Gulf War memorial that also needs its approval. They focused, primarily, on where to place it.
Discussion of the World War I monument, including public testimony, lasted nearly an hour, with critics objecting to nearly every aspect of the proposal: the topography, the trees, the walkways, the water fountains and the flagpole.
One commissioner also objected to New York City sculptor Sabin Howard’s artwork, suggesting the preliminary sketches were insufficiently diverse for a 21st-century audience.
“I just want to say I don’t see a lot of women,” said Eric Shaw, director of D.C.’s planning office. “If we’re thinking about contemporary memorials, we have to have contemporary representation.”
Fayetteville native Joe Weishaar, the lead designer of the World War I proposal, sat on the front row and listened calmly as critics repeatedly faulted the project.
Afterward, he said he would work to address the objections raised by the commissioners.
The design is still a work in progress, he said. “It’s always evolving.”
Weishaar, a graduate of the University of Arkansas’ Fay Jones School of Architecture, was picked to design the project in January 2016 after winning an international competition.
Phoebe Lickwar, a professor at the Jones School, is the project’s landscape architect.
In 2014, Congress authorized the World War I Centennial Commission to build a monument to the Great War, saying it should be placed at a park along Pennsylvania Avenue.
But that site, Pershing Park, was later declared eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. As a result, changes to the site have been closely scrutinized and repeatedly contested. The park is named for John J. Pershing, who had served as general of the armies in World War I.
Designed by M. Paul Friedberg and subsequently modified by the Oehme van Sweden landscape architecture firm, city preservation officials say the existing park is “an exceptional example of a landscape design of the modern period and of an approach to the design of public space as an integral part of the revitalization of an urban neighborhood in decline.”
On Thursday, Darwina Neal, the former chief of cultural resource preservation services for the National Park Service, said the original design should be restored, not replaced.
“There is no excuse for abandoning the original design, which is a significant work of landscape architecture by a master landscape architect. Rather it should be rehabilitated. Demolition by neglect should not be tolerated,” she told the commission.
Evan Cash, another D.C. official, said the current design of the proposed WWI memorial bears little resemblance to the original version.
“What started out as a project to look for a new World War I Memorial has actually turned into a preservation project of the existing park,” he said. “At this point, we’re nowhere near where we started.”
It may be time, he said, to “just go back to the drawing board and do a [new] design competition.”
Mina Wright, an official with the General Services Administration, said some of the criticism in recent days had been unduly harsh.
“This is a really difficult problem to solve, but I don’t think it’s necessary to get mean about it,” she said.
The designers, she noted, are supposed to build a new landmark on a historic piece of property in the nation’s capital, without negatively affecting the site’s existing design.
“Boy howdy, it happens an awful lot where two big ideas are put, unwittingly or not, on a collision course for disaster,” she said. “I just want to take a moment to recognize that this is a really sort of vexing problem.”
In an interview, Weishaar agreed that the task is challenging.
“There’s no easy solution. It’s all give and take,” he said.
Asked how he managed to stay upbeat in the face of withering criticism, Weishaar said he remembers what he was told by Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“Her advice was, ‘Try to smile every day. Have fun with it,’” he said. “It would be a hard process if I didn’t have a good attitude about it.”