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D.C.'s proposed WWI Memorial gets redesign

Pershing Park’s historicity has caused the memorial to get further reduced in size

The Pool and Plaza Concept for the planned WWI Memorial at Pershing Park.
Rendering via National Park Service

This past Friday, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) reviewed the most updated proposal for the planned WWI Memorial at Downtown’s 1.75-acre Pershing Park. According to a press release, the new design maintains more of the existing park design and retains the park’s pool. The kiosk will be replaced for a flagpole, and there are still plans for a path to be added across the pool for visitors to access the proposed commemorative wall.

In order to improve views across the park, members of the NCPC asked for the planned 65-foot-long commemorative wall to be reduced in size. There was also a request for the proposed water feature to be further studied along with what methods could improve pedestrian access and visibility from the park’s southern perimeter along Pennsylvania Avenue.

In response to the current WWI Memorial proposal, the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) submitted a letter to the NCPC, asking that the “Upper Wall Concept” be reconsidered. In the letter, TCLF President and CEO Charles A. Birnbaum wrote that this concept would better retain the existing waterfall and pool and better situate the commemorative wall along the elevated north-south walk behind the waterfall. The wall would then be able to be seen from multiple vantage points throughout the park. According to Birnbaum, this proposal would also better satisfy Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

This is not the first time the TCLF has spoken against the WWI Memorial proposal. The organization has repeatedly asked the NCPC to avoid harming the historicity of the park through the memorial’s many components. According to Birnbaum, Pershing Park has potential to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

It was designed in May 1981 by award-winning landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, whose previous projects include New York’s Battery Park City and Minneapolis’ Peavey Plaza. It is also the only Friedberg project with a planting plan by D.C.-based landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden. The site is bounded by Pennsylvania Avenues on the north and south, 14th Street NW on the east, and 15th Street NW on the west.

In a letter sent to the NCPC in June 2017, Birnbaum wrote, “This is not a restoration; rather it is a rehabilitation effort, but with the addition of a feature that is so incompatible in scale that its insertion destroys the integrity of the heart of the park.”

In March 2017, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts also asked the WWI Commission for a “smaller intervention,” more specifically a design that wouldn’t “overwhelm the existing park design.”

The images planned to be carved in the commemorative wall.

Philip Kennicott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post, has previously described Pershing Park as not well maintained, “[not] much loved today,” and with a “sense of isolation.” He further noted that within less than a mile of Pershing Park, there are three WWI memorials. These memorials include the monuments to the 1st and 2nd Army divisions and the bandstand in West Potomac Park.

“We don’t need a new national WWI memorial,” wrote Kennicott.

The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission hopes to complete a brand new National WWI memorial at Pershing Park by November 2018, in time for the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. The memorial is expected to cost between $30 million to $35 million, which will be raised from private donors.