Designers go back to drawing board on proposed World War II memorial Initial plan rejected as too large, elaborate


WASHINGTON -- Sponsors of a World War II Memorial proposed for the capital Mall are struggling to recover from the unexpected rejection of their ambitious design.

Now prospects for the monument, criticized by two agencies as too large and elaborate for the Mall, are uncertain.

Within the next few weeks, the American Battlefield Monuments Commission, sponsor of the World War II project, will meet to decide how to regroup in time to make another presentation to the two agencies this fall.

According to commission spokesman Joe Purka, the panel will choose between reworking the current plan or returning to the drawing board for a new design. "Right now, that's completely undecided," he said.

If they fail a second time, some fear that the commission could lose the right to erect the memorial on the Mall site at the east end of the reflecting pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

In that event, though the Mall is home to both the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, the World War II monument could be relegated to Arlington Cemetery, where sponsors of a memorial to American women in the military were compelled to erect their shrine.

The chairman of the Battlefield Monuments Commission design committee, F. Haydn Williams, remained optimistic, promising to build "a memorial that will be fully commensurate with the lasting historical significance of World War II on the life of America."

"The World War II Memorial plaza [on the Mall] with a restored Rainbow [reflecting] Pool as its centerpiece," he said, "will become a new gathering place to celebrate the triumph of democratic ideals."

The selection of the Mall site was announced two years ago, in time for commemorative celebrations honoring the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.

Architect Friedrich St. Florian's design called for a semi-circle of neo-classical columns with waterfall, fitted into a submerged plaza obscured from street level view by earthen berms. The outsized structure, which would directly abut the end of the long reflecting pool, would also house interior display spaces illustrating the many dimensions of the war and America's contribution to it.

Led by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat and sponsor of the original congressional mandate for the work, and Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, 160 other House members and 10 senators endorsed the project, as did 29 veterans' groups.

But Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat and Vietnam War hero and amputee active in military and veterans' affairs, and 17 other senators came out against it.

"It is too large; too obtrusive," Kerrey said. "This is an important, hallowed, quiet space. My principal objection to this particular site and design is that something already exists on this site. If what is being proposed is built, we will destroy what is already there. I also believe that it will infringe on the vistas, which is not only axial from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, but from all Mall vantage points."

Another critic likened the St. Florian design, with its imposing neo-classical columns, to German architect and armaments minister Albert Speer's grandiose plan for the capital of a postwar Nazi Europe.

Approval from Washington's Commission of Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commission, as well as that of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, are needed before the memorial can proceed.

On July 24, the Fine Arts Commission rejected St. Florian's design as too overwhelming, recommending that the memorial's backers return with a scaled-down and subdued plan that would eliminate the interior display spaces, which critics charged amounted to a museum.

Fine Arts Commission Chairman J. Carter Brown, former director of the National Gallery of Art, strongly urged retention of the Mall location, however. "We will never find a subject more fitting for this site," he said.

A week later, the National Capital Planning Commission also opposed the design but voted 7-4 to retain the Mall site. But some of the seven expressed reservations and indicated they might want to see the memorial moved elsewhere if the new design fails to win approval.

Veterans were dismayed that something so popular as a monument to America's greatest 20th Century sacrifice and role in fostering world democracy could meet with such strong objection. But federal monuments and memorials are always contentious.

With most World War II veterans now in their 70s, including former President George Bush, the Navy's youngest combat pilot of the war, pressure to complete a World War II Memorial soon is building.

"We are losing our World War II veterans," said Kaptur, "so there is an urgency to these proceedings."

Pub Date: 8/12/97

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