The nation's capital now has a proper World War I memorial, but can it revive memories of a war that's mostly forgotten?
By PHILIP KENNICOTT | The Washington Post | Published: April 30, 2021
In Washington, memorials to the major wars of the 20th century were built in inverse order. First came the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in 1982, followed by the Korean War Veterans Memorial in 1995 and the National World War II Memorial in 2004. Earlier this month, the oldest of the four major wars of the past century, World War I, was honored with the newest memorial, a plaza with fountains and, at some point in the future, a formidably scaled bronze sculpture by artist Sabin Howard.
The new memorial is an efficient if not entirely successful repurposing of Pershing Park, where a statue of the general who led American troops during World War I was dedicated in 1983. Promoters of a national World War I memorial argued that neither a statue devoted to John J. Pershing nor the modest but beloved bandshell on the Mall (which honors District residents who died in the war) was sufficient to keep alive the memory of national sacrifice during this country's third-bloodiest war. Nor was the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City an adequate substitute for a national memorial in the country's capital. So they proposed refurbishing Pershing Park (a sunken, trapezoidal green spot on Pennsylvania Avenue) to honor both Pershing and the troops he led.
This proved controversial because it meant making substantial changes to the existing park, designed by the noted landscape architect Paul Friedberg. The original park was centered on a sunken plaza and a large pool of water, mostly hidden from the street by berms along its perimeter. The pool was sometimes used for ice skating until 2006, and the park was a relatively secluded spot in the heart of the monumental core of Washington, favored by office workers for lunch and a little sun and air.
Opinions differed on Friedberg's design. The park had fallen into disrepair, and the street furniture — lamps and benches — felt dated. The berms that created a sense of escape and enclosure also broke a core rule of contemporary urban park design, which is that people must be able to see into and instantly "read" a park if they are going to feel welcome. This isn't necessarily true, but it has become so pervasive that it shapes public opinion as much as it describes it.
Some of the basic elements of Friedberg's design were retained by architect Joseph Weishaar's new layout, but its spirit is erased. There is still a sunken plaza, and a water feature, but the sense of enclosure is gone. The old visitor's kiosk has been removed, but the statue of Pershing remains. The general stands larger than life, eight feet tall, with square shoulders and a ferociously determined look on his face. It is a period piece from the age of Great Men. Nobody ever paid much attention to it, and it is as irrelevant in the new park as it was in the old.
The center of attention is no longer the pool and the hint of nature it offered, but rather, a long wall where Howard's 58-foot long relief sculpture will eventually be installed when it is finished. The park's purpose is now infinitely clearer: It is a war memorial, serious, sober and educational. The sense of freedom — to daydream, feel the sun on your face and perhaps sleep a wink — inspired by Friedberg's park has been replaced by something more dutiful.
Duty defines this whole, $42 million project. The creators of the memorial, including lawyer Edwin Fountain, who shepherded the idea for a national memorial in Washington, felt the need to educate the public about the war, especially as living memory of it was fading to extinction. In 2011, during the long process of generating political support for the project, the last living veteran of the war, the 110-year-old Frank Buckles, died. The war, it seemed, was in imminent danger of being forgotten.
In fact, it was already forgotten in most of the ways that matter when we think of that amorphous thing known as collective memory. So, any memorial to the war was going to feel a bit more like a platform for a remedial civics lesson than a site for emotional communion with the memory of those who served. The memorial was also driven by a "completist" idea about national memorials: We had one for the other wars, so we must need one for World War I. Never mind that there are several memorials throughout Washington that have their origins in the First World War, including those to the 1st and 2nd Infantry divisions near the White House, and the 1921 Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
The strength of the new memorial is in its recentering of the war, away from the "great man" figure of Pershing and onto the collective sacrifice of those who served under him. The plaza also includes an attractive, square water feature that serves as a kind of reflective screen on the ground, picking up highlights of the nearby buildings and sky. The shallow, geometrically precise "screen" of water also underscores this memorial's tenuous relation to genuine memory. World War I, over for more than a century now, is something we see on screens. It exists through photographs and films, always mediated and remote from our experience.
I don't know whether this memorial will do much to change that. Often, the education gleaned from a memorial is broad and bland, leaving the visitor with little more than the sense that something terrible happened and we really ought to remember it. A photographic mock-up of Howard's forthcoming sculpture, to be called "A Soldier's Journey," suggests it will offer a cinematic view of the war, with conventional scenes of departure, battle, return and healing. It is meant not just as a reflection on the experience of individual soldiers but as an allegory of the United States' arrival on the world stage through participation in what was known then as the Great War. But that allegory, with its triumphalist overtones, feels very different in the broken America of today, a country that couldn't defend itself against a pandemic; can't put an end to rampant gun violence, police brutality and murder, and systemic racism; and that feeds daily on a toxic and self-destructive stream of disinformation.
In the aftermath of World War I, debate raged about whether the country should build memorial parks and memorial bridges, or traditional "purpose-built" memorials that served no other public function than to prompt collective memory and respect. Advocates of traditional memorials argued that the memorial part of a memorial bridge or park was soon forgotten, and only traditional memorials, like the new World War I Memorial, truly served the memory of the things they memorialized. People just used the public amenity and forgot what it symbolized.
That was definitely true of the old Pershing Park. No one went there to think about Pershing. Now those who go are obliged to think about World War I. A public space that served many purposes now serves a single one. It does that well enough, but I think I'd rather read a book.