Plans for WWI memorial in nation's capital stir ire


WASHINGTON — An effort to build a new World War I memorial is causing controversy even as the project moved forward Wednesday with the announcement of five design-competition finalists.

Finalists were thrilled at being chosen, and for the $25,000 they each received.

Joseph Weishaar said he was “overwhelmed” at the news. “I never thought it would turn out like this,” said Weishaar, 25, an intern at a Chicago architectural firm. More than 300 designs were submitted.

PHOTOS | Pershing Park from the 1980s compared to today

But organizers from the WWI Centennial Commission, which launched the design competition in May, are finding themselves battling those up in arms over the site of the new memorial.

“I was shocked there was even such a contest,” said landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, who designed Pershing Park, where the memorial is to be built. Friedberg, 83, told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday that he was never consulted about the new plans. “You don’t destroy something that has value to build something and give it some other value.”

Charles Birnbaum with the Cultural Landscape Foundation believes Pershing Park is a seminal work by Friedberg, whom he referred to as a “master” in the field of landscape architecture. The design competition plans threaten what Birnbaum sees as a nationally significant architectural site that his organization is petitioning to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

After reviewing the five design finalists announced Wednesday, Birnbaum said his group opposes the designs, all of which call for the demolition of Pershing Park in downtown D.C., “one of the most important public spaces.”

But to Edwin L. Fountain, vice chairman of the WWI Centennial Commission, the current site where the WWI memorial is to be built is a “35-year-old failed park” that should be replaced.

On the southeast corner of the park — at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, one block from the White House — a 12-foot bronze statue of WWI Army Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing stands along with several granite panels with inscriptions. At the other end of the 1.8-acre enclosure toward the White House, amphitheater-style steps lead down to a concrete basin that in better days served as a shallow pool fed by an upper fountain.

For years after it opened in 1981, the pool was a well-kept water garden that drew many visitors. But in recent years, the park has not been maintained and has significantly deteriorated. The pool, which also served as an ice-skating rink during winter, has not been used for several years because of poor plumbing conditions.

Friedberg called it “obscene” and a “dereliction of duty” that city officials and the National Park Service have allowed the park to fall into such disrepair. But that doesn’t mean you do away with it, he said. “Would you destroy Central Park in New York City, just because it needed some repairs?” he asked. Friedberg said replacing his work with another was a “destruction of culture” akin to burning books. He said he’s prepared to fight to keep Pershing Park the way it is.

Fountain said it’s premature to say whether there will be a legal battle over Pershing Park. The five designs chosen to compete in the second stage of the competition will be extensively developed with several midcourse and compliance reviews before a final design is chosen in January. All pertinent agencies will be involved during the process to give guidance. If it’s determined that Pershing Park should be listed in the National Register as a historical site and cannot be substantially changed, Fountain said alterations would be made to the designs to accommodate that.


Pershing Park as seen in June 2015.

Pershing Park from the 1980s compared to today