A monumental fight over World War II

George Washington waited 89 years for his obelisk on the Mall. Abraham Lincoln's monument took 67. For the generation that fought World War II, it will be 55 years, if groundbreaking proceeds on Veterans Day this fall - relatively fast work, as great monuments go.

But long overdue, if you're among the 5.7 million veterans wondering why Vietnam and Korean veterans already have their honored spot on the Mall, and you do not. It's also overdue if one of the objects of the memorial is to make sure that as many veterans as possible get to see it.

It's that sense of urgency that's now driving a design approval process that critics say is deeply flawed and could leave the Mall bulging with monuments instead of inspiring vistas.

Location, location, location

The 7.4-acre site for the new memorial is between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The prominence of the site conveys the reverence and importance of the event, supporters say.

Initially, the site was to be in Constitution Gardens - on the Mall, but north of its central axis. Key planners asked for a change.

"We felt it was not a prominent enough site to reflect the importance of World War II in the 20th century," says Charles Atherton, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, which recommended a move to the current site at the end of the Reflecting Pool.

But the prominence of the site also forced planners to scale down the design of the project, which once included an underground museum. The more central the site, the more critical that it be simple, transparent, and not detract from the other vistas on the Mall, sponsors said.

The project had to be "designed for transparency," says architect Friedrich St. Florian, who won the competition to design the memorial among some 400 submissions.

The design competition emphasized three qualities: artistry, spiritual substance, and respect for the memorial's environs. "It should stand for all time as an important symbol of American national unity, a timeless reminder of the moral strength and the awesome power that can flow when a free people are at once united and bonded together in a common and just cause," said competition guidelines.

Critics say the final design falls short on all fronts. But the major concern expressed at the final public hearings on the memorial last week focused on the damage expected to vistas on the Mall.

No room for a view

"Placing a large, multifaceted war memorial in the virtual lap of Lincoln crowds and overwhelms the universality of the American ideals associated with the Lincoln Memorial," said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), of the District of Columbia.

The area around the Lincoln Memorial has special significance to civil rights activists because of Marian Anderson's 1939 recital and Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech at the site. The proposed World War II site is about half a mile from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Other critics worry about the proliferation of monuments on the Mall. "The mall is already bursting at the seams, soon it will be littered in marble," said Jim McGrath of the DC Tenants Advocacy Coalition. World War II veteran Howard Shuman dubbed it a "cold and lifeless design."

"It looks like what Nazis would have built had they won the war," added William Scheirer, a member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a public interest group.

The 'silent' veterans

About as many supporters as critics spoke at the Sept. 21 hearings. Sponsors say many more "silent" veterans support the memorial. "I hope I can speak for 10 million deceased veterans," said Robert Dole, the former Kansas senator and chairman of the campaign to build the memorial. "I think they would agree that this is an appropriate site."

The war of words over the 1981 Vietnam Memorial - now the most visited and successful memorial in Washington - was far more strident. Critics called the design by Yale undergraduate student Maya Lin a "degrading ditch."

The success of the Vietnam Memorial prompted new interest in monument building, including the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Women's Memorial, and the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial.

After nearly eight hours of testimony, the National Capital Planning Commission voted 7 to 5 to approve the design. Opponents are now considering a lawsuit to block construction.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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