The continued mauling of the National Mall

September 09, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

AT a regularly scheduled monthly meeting in the dead of summer, Washington's National Capital Planning Commission pulled out its biggest, baddest rubber stamp. In front of commissioners was a cockamamie plan to construct a museum adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial, underground beneath a parcel now occupied by a pair of bucolic softball fields. After hearing testimony from three citizens, all opposed, the NCPC gave a speedy thumbs-up to this latest incursion on the National Mall.

In one fell swoop, three things were accomplished. The incremental ruin of the Mall -- America's greatest 20th century work of civic landscape art -- was pushed into overdrive. Significant damage was assured for the adjacent Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a modern design masterpiece. And, last but hardly least, the NCPC tacitly announced its own obsolescence as a serious "planning" agency.

Three for the price of one. Who ever expected such efficiency from Washington?

Certainly not sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim, or landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. They designed the Mall a century ago to symbolize America's founding principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The mess would likely stun them.

A change of tone

The 25,000-square-foot, $100-million museum that the NCPC rubber-stamped Aug. 3 is the euphemistically named Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitor Center. Championed by groups long distraught by the sober refinement of Maya Lin's abstract design for the 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it is envisioned as a place to provide patriotic uplift and educational context for the Southeast Asian conflict.

If you didn't think the magnificent memorial required explanation, you are not alone.

If you don't get the aim of adding patriotic uplift to a memorial whose selection committee actually specified that the winning design should not exalt the war, join the crowd.

If you wonder why that event warrants its own Mall museum -- alone among American armed conflicts between the War of 1812 and Desert Storm -- I cannot give you an answer.

Except to say: The Mall's planning and oversight process is irreparably broken. At least six federal agencies, eight congressional committees, plus the District of Columbia have jurisdiction -- so many competing overlords that no one is effectively in charge. That makes it ripe for exploitation.

The black granite Vietnam Wall may be a famous masterpiece and Washington's most-visited memorial, but that hasn't stopped people from tinkering with it. In 1984, a flagpole and an innocuous statue of three servicemen were added. In 1993, a bronze pieta showing a wounded soldier lying across a nurse's lap, like Jesus and Mary after the crucifixion, applied inappropriate Christian imagery to secular military sacrifice. Now, a museum is pending. The brilliantly designed original site has been badly redesigned, again and again, for 20 years.

This "memorial inflation" cuts another way. When the visitor center idea was first floated six years ago, it called for a 1,200-square-foot pavilion. Then came the plan to move the building underground, where objections to adding visual clutter to an already cluttered Mall might fade. The size ballooned to 8,000 square feet at a privately funded cost of about $6 million.

Congress held hearings in May 2003, and the museum grew to 10,000 square feet, the cost to $10 million. In January 2005, when the Lincoln Memorial site was recommended, it had swelled to 12,000 square feet and $40 million. Inexplicably, last month both those numbers had more than doubled.

Just wait. Objections to a subterranean bunker have already begun -- expect "insulting" and "shameful" to be the preferred descriptors -- as they have to the underground plans at the beleaguered World Trade Center Memorial in New York. Pressure will build to raise the 25,000-square-foot museum up.

Impossible, you say? So was the plan to build anything at all, six years ago.

A change in attitude

When proposed in 2000, the visitor center idea went nowhere. Controversial designs for the National World War II Memorial, then not-yet built, were igniting plentiful public protest. Other new-memorial ideas were jostling for attention. A long-sought moratorium on further Mall construction was in the works.

Then came Sept. 11.

Remember when "everything changed"? In truth, unforeseen opportunities materialized.

On March 20, 2003, the Bush administration launched the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Six days later, California Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the powerful House Resources Committee, introduced legislation authorizing construction of the Vietnam War museum. Similar proposals had failed three times before. Now, the vote for Pombo's bill was even more lopsided than the vote authorizing the Iraq war.

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