The saga over the future of Pershing Park, where a new national memorial for World War I is planned, took a turn earlier this month when the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) green-lighted a concept proposal for a “freestanding sculpture wall” in the downtown park’s pool.
In 2016, the WWI Centennial Commission—established a few years earlier by Congress—selected a proposal by Chicago architect Joseph Weishaar and New York sculptor Sabin Howard called “The Weight of Sacrifice” to go in Pershing Park. Designed by celebrated landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, the 1.75-acre park opened in 1981 and is located between 14th and 15th streets NW on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The project has gone through several design revisions. On July 19, the CFA approved a version of the memorial that is 56 feet long by 11 feet tall and would replace the cascade fountain in Pershing Park. This configuration won out over another alternative that would embed the sculpture wall on the western side of the pool, where there are currently steps.
Depicting soldiers in high relief, the freestanding sculpture wall would face east over the pool and have a cascade on its back side facing west. Parts of the pool would have to be paved and reduced in depth to accommodate the wall.
But the design is not final and it is unclear when the memorial might actually be built. As CFA Secretary Thomas Luebke explained in a July 27 letter to the National Park Service:
In their approval of the revised concept, the [CFA] Commission members commented that the presentation demonstrated that the new commemorative purpose and the preservation of the historic park are not antithetical goals, and that the insertion of the freestanding sculpture wall at the western end of the central pool would successfully reinterpret the existing landscape. They also endorsed the project team’s preferred configuration of creating a large paved area or viewing platform within the historic pool, bordered by a significant perimeter of water. However, they recommended studying the extension of this water along the pool’s eastern edge, and they expressed concern about the necessity and appropriateness of the scrim water feature proposed on the platform.
Architectural groups like The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) say the memorial must not destroy the character of Pershing Park as envisioned by Friedberg, including its “visual and spatial relationships.” In a recent blog post, TCLF said the freestanding sculpture wall could obstruct sight lines between the park’s upper and lower terraces and discourage visitors from going behind the wall, “where they would be isolated and most often in shadows.”
The National Capital Planning Commission is expected to review the CFA-approved concept for the memorial in the coming months. Details of the sculpture wall, inscriptions, materials, landscaping, signage and other elements still have to be worked out before construction takes place.