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In the Throes of a Monumental Argument

Politics: Bureaucrats and architecture critics are quibbling over a World War II memorial whose design hasn't even been unveiled yet. But that's par for the course when it comes to building in the capital.

December 19, 1996|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — The only thing they love more than monuments in this city is fighting over plans for a new one.

Consider the hue and cry over the proposed World War II Memorial. The memorial: will spoil Lincoln's view of the Washington obelisk; sounds suspiciously like a museum in monument drag; will spawn hordes of crazed tour bus drivers with no place to park; risks springing a leak in its marshy landfill site; and is priced high enough (at $100 million) to make the Jefferson statue on the nearby Tidal Basin blush.

This commemoration of democracy's victory over fascism--slated for ribbon-cutting in 2000--already has architectural critics sputtering, federal bureaucrats bellyaching and U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey admonishing: "Better to delay construction than to make a mistake which can never be reversed."

All this, and we don't even know what it will look like yet.

The winning design for the memorial was picked by panels of architects and military veterans late last month and remains one of the best-kept secrets in the capital. They're waiting for President Clinton to decide if he wants to do the unveiling.

Little wonder the White House is dawdling. Some say that if the history of Washington monument-making remains true to form, the carping isn't over by half. "We all know they're lying there waiting for the memorial design to appear," says Charles Atherton, secretary of the federal Commission of Fine Arts.

The controversy over this latest memorial-to-be, which is to sit on 7.4 acres on the Washington Mall midway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, is less business as usual than ritualistic. You can't raise an edifice in this city without raising hell.

The National Park Service, which must operate the memorial, worries about parking and how the ambitious goals of the monument--to both educate visitors about the conflict and commemorate millions of military and civilian participants--may themselves cause problems. Officials are concerned that visitors will stay longer than the 20-minute average that a memorial can tolerate before creating pedestrian gridlock.

"The buses will be drawn to it," predicts John Parsons, an associate parks superintendent, who can recite instantly the number of memorials in the city (153) and the oldest (Andrew Jackson on horseback in Lafayette Square, 1853).

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The Commission of Fine Arts, which must approve the final design, worries that the amount of space allowed for construction underground--some 65,000 square feet--will constitute virtually a buried building. "We don't want to see a bunch of ventilation stacks sticking up around the Rainbow Pool," Atherton says.

And Kerrey, of Nebraska, worries that a now-unfettered sight line from the Lincoln to Washington monuments will be ruined. "I don't know how you can build anything between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument," he says. "People who come to Washington, D.C., talk about what they do when they're here and they stand on the base of the Washington Monument and they look at Lincoln reflected clearly in the pool between them. . . . This is going to alter that view."

Fretting over the World War II Memorial is in fine tradition.

The most striking object in the city, the Washington Monument, was the result of 50 years of failed designs, stalled funding, a onetime occupation of a half-finished tower by anti-immigrant demonstrators and Congress' belated decision to fund completion in 1884. The Lincoln Memorial survived a series of false starts and the strident opposition of then-House Speaker "Uncle Joe" Cannon, who vowed never to desecrate Abe's memory with a monument built in what he considered a swamp. When the great emancipator's memorial was dedicated in 1922, the viewing audience was kept segregated.

Franklin Roosevelt single-handedly forced through design of the domed Jefferson Memorial despite rejection by a Commission of Fine Arts that declared: enough Greek revivalism already. Bitter public debate followed unveiling of the stark, bunker-like Vietnam memorial in 1982. Dissident designers sued over alterations to their proposed Korean War Veterans Memorial (and lost before it opened last year). And the Roosevelt Memorial nearing completion on the Tidal Basin went through four decades of design changes--one dubbed "Instant Stonehenge"--before a final image led to kibitzing over whether to display FDR in a wheelchair (he won't be).

"There is a certain tightrope that has to be walked and I think the people I'm associating with on this project realize it," says Rolland E. Kidder, a Vietnam veteran and member of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which is primarily responsible for the World War II Memorial.

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Avirtual alphabet soup of commissions, departments and panels struggled for 13 months over where to put it, debating nine locations, before settling on the present one. Clinton dedicated the site last year.

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