WWI me­mo­rial plan draw­ing crit­ics in D.C.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - FRANK E. LOCK­WOOD

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.”

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