Politics & Policy

Washington’s World War I Memorial: The Judges Got It Wrong

Memorial design by James McCrery and Chas Fagan

Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue — specifically, the portion extending from the Capitol to the presidential enclave that includes the White House and the main Treasury Department building — is the nation’s most prestigious thoroughfare. It should be a great ceremonial street, with harmonious architectural frontages and inspiring monuments. It needs the kind of formal coherence and functional diversity typical of the great Parisian boulevards.

Instead, this section of Pennsylvania Avenue is seriously deficient in terms of both architecture and planning and, not surprisingly, largely devoid of people after hours and on weekends. Deficiencies are not lacking near the Treasury Department, where a new National World War I Memorial is to be erected in a rundown modernist park that includes, in one corner, a rather uninspiring monument to General John J. Pershing. Then there’s the big, ugly J. W. Marriott Hotel at Pennsylvania and 14th Street and the skateboarder’s paradise that is Freedom Plaza in front of it.

Obviously, a memorial budgeted at $20–25 million can do only so much. But it could serve as a catalyst for future improvements. Unfortunately, the modernist competition managers and jurors overseeing the World War One Centennial Commission’s memorial competition are quite unlikely to fulfill even that limited brief, to judge from the five finalist designs announced August 19.

The Capitol provides the incomparable terminus to the eastern vista along Pennsylvania Avenue. But the Treasury Department building’s handsome southern portico lacks the mass and elevation necessary for an imposing western terminus. Also, what should be a fluid spatial corridor along the avenue is broken up into discrete precincts as one approaches the Treasury Department. Pershing Park, the 1.8-acre memorial site, is one such precinct. Trapezoidal in plan, it mediates a significant difference in grade between eastbound E Street to its south and the higher northwest-bound stretch of the avenue to the north. It is isolated by embankments and a plethora of trees, creating an enclosure where a sense of openness is needed. The park is thus a natural magnet for derelicts. Across 15th Street from the park and due south of the Treasury building, an equestrian monument to William Tecumseh Sherman likewise looms above a barrier of turf, trees, and a low wall. It is now off limits thanks to the security mania that seized official Washington after 9/11.

So aside from the challenge of providing a formally and symbolically appropriate memorial design, there are two issues the World War I memorial should ideally address. The first is the unquestionably difficult Pershing Park site itself. Another is the park’s urban context.

Pershing Park site

A small fraction of the more than 350 submissions for the World War I memorial were conceived in the classical idiom that has defined Washington since its founding. Almost all of these classical submissions are inept to one degree or another, starting with the lone specimen the jurors unwisely selected for the finalist round. The fact remains that the only submissions that effectively addressed the site, set an appropriate tone for the avenue, and provided an appropriate commemorative form were classical.

Philadelphia architect Roy Lewis’s classical tower is one design that obviously should have made the cut but didn’t. His 92-foot-tall tower — less than a third the height of the Old Post Office’s Romanesque clock tower down the avenue — consists of two massive, pier-like elements, separated by a narrow arched opening, that fuse near the top to form a unified shaft. The shaft is surmounted by a square formation of receding steps. This formation is enclosed by columns and the interlocking beams they support — a kind of openwork temple within which a sarcophagus rests on blocks at the top of the steps. The crowning arrangement is cluttered, lacking the formal clarity of Edwin Lutyens’s sarcophagus-crowned Cenotaph (1920) in London or Ralph Adams Cram’s Georgian-style Carillon Tower (1931) in Richmond, Va. — the latter also a World War I memorial. Given Pennsylvania Avenue’s enormous scale, larger forms more legible at a distance are in order.

The only submissions that effectively addressed the site, set an appropriate tone for the avenue, and provided an appropriate commemorative form were classical.

Lewis astutely retains modernist landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg’s sunken Pershing Park pool (which is now empty) and its surrounding steps as a sort of shallow amphitheater adjacent to his tower while modifying the landscape to emphasize openness from east to west. Water cascades down a second stepped formation within his sundered tower shaft and into the pool. He has retained the Pershing memorial — which features a really bad statue of the general by Robert Winthrop White (Stanford White’s grandson) and wall slabs engraved with battle maps and lots of narrative text — as a discrete space that is deftly woven into his non-axial site plan. Given the competition guidelines and budget constraints, Lewis has thought the design problem through pragmatically and inventively, providing an admirable conceptual basis for a dignified World War I monument and a much-improved park.

Annapolis architect Devin Kimmel’s less successful classical design, however, was the one that advanced to the finalist round. It features a large mass that resembles a hybrid of a monumental arch and a supersized tombstone. The upper portion of this form, which Kimmel calls a tower, consists of a large central panel flanked by massive piers with inset blind arches — all replete with text. Visitors entering the site from the south descend to the tower’s high, heavily rusticated base, semicircular pool, and arched grotto, with an eternal flame harbored within the grotto’s inner sanctum. The tower is aligned east–west, so that it would be viewed obliquely from Pennsylvania Avenue. Kimmel’s site plan is much more formally cohesive than Pershing Park now is, but because his core space is sunken while his site is open only to the south and heavily screened by trees elsewhere, it still creates a much too isolated enclosure.

And yet we can learn from Kimmel’s design. Like Lewis, but in a very different way, he’s trying to rework canonic architectural elements into a new synthesis. That’s what’s so important about the tradition. It provides objective criteria as well as an enduring formal vocabulary that allow the architect’s body of practical knowledge to expand with every solution to a particular design problem. The tradition thus builds on itself rather than continuously disintegrating into a theoretical miasma.

Also in the tower category, a non-compliant but eminently noteworthy submission gets to the heart of the design problem. It would cost a whole lot more than $25 million to erect Richard Cameron and Michael Djordjevitch’s 225-foot-tall Bell Tower, and the architects also ignored the memorial commission’s perfectly reasonable specification that submissions not incorporate the names of those who lost their lives in the war. The tower, whose base is a four-way arch, includes an octagonal shaft crowned by a simple, astylar capital that supports an open tholos, or circular temple, gracefully crowned by a tripod. Elongated arched openings in the shaft reveal spiraling stairs wrapped around a bronze column to be inscribed with the names of the battlefield dead. (For the record: Washington’s security bureaucracy would take umbrage at public access to the monument’s interior, and there would also be an outcry over the exclusion of non-combat fatalities from the column.) The dome of the tholos houses bells, while its colonnade surrounds a sculptural pelican feeding its young with its own blood — a sacrificial motif that would be lost on the viewer symbolically and maybe visually as well. But the Bell Tower is not only beautifully proportioned but massive enough to provide a proper formal counterpoint to the Capitol to the east and the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument to the south while duly commemorating the nation’s pivotal involvement in the first of two world wars that changed the course of history.

Cameron and Djordjevitch’s Bell Tower design

Like the man said, make no little plans. The Cameron–Djordjevitch design operates at a dramatically urban scale, and this tower would vastly enrich the city’s monumental core. Eschewing the romantic-modernist syndrome of idiosyncratic reification of literary metaphors, this monument is purely, abstractly honorific. It is, in other words, pure architecture. It also serves as a useful critique of the drastically constricted artistic and symbolic horizons of recent memorials in our nation’s capital, which have led, for example, to the enormous mistake of making the focus of the pidgin-classical National World War II Memorial (2004) a sunken plaza on the main Mall axis between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. The World War II Memorial needed to be a great arch — Washington does not have one — and such an arch would have fit beautifully on the traffic circle where 16th Street and Massachusetts Avenue intersect within eyeshot of the White House. Modernists would whine about “glorifying war,” but tragedy is triumph’s significant other, and the arch readily lends itself to the expression of tragic grandeur.

Architect Michael Imber and sculptor Sabin Howard also submitted an ambitious design, this one reminiscent of the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome. Their monument, which most visitors would probably read as a temple, is a cylindrical structure surrounded on its lower level by a circular colonnade. It is embedded in the landscape so as to be ringed by ramped terraces and towering skyrocket junipers, which  would lend a strikingly Mediterranean air to this portion of Pennsylvania Avenue.Their monument is, as the Roman mausoleum originally was not, flat-topped. A processional east–west axis leads to its entrance and a spacious chamber that is skylit through an oculus. Here the centerpiece is a sculpture of two kneeling soldiers, one peering resolutely into the future as he embraces a comrade overcome by grief.

The Imber–Howard design offers another essentially self-contained precinct, in this case one enveloped by gingko trees. The elaborate design even includes a small pool, surrounding the interior sculptural group, that is intended to make the kneeling figures look like they’re floating in space, oddly contradicting the gravity-bound logic of the sculptural composition, which strays into the realm of illustration. This submission also looks unlikely to be executed for $25 million, but the way it draws on ancient precedent is impressive.

Finally, architect James McCrery and sculptor Chas Fagan’s far simpler design addresses the Pershing Park problem at the scale of the park itself. Two L-shaped colonnades raised on high bases and oriented east–west — thereby leaving the site’s relationship to the Capitol, it is true, unaddressed — face one another, forming an entrance from the west. The stem of one of the colonnaded L’s is truncated by the Pennsylvania Avenue diagonal, creating an appealing asymmetry that isn’t arbitrary but dictated by the site, and also an unusual situation in which the subtle romantic suggestion of the partial remains of a temple makes sense. The court created by the colonnades features a long, rectangular pool, with the Pershing statue, or maybe a new Pershing equestrian, pushed back near its east end. The court might be better off with a more central sculptural or architectural feature with a torsional or multi-axial configuration that would interact perceptually with the colonnades framing it. This feature might be situated within a smaller, circular pool. And the design would be much better off without the sculptural figures of soldiers in various poses strewn between the southern columns. They would surely read as kitschy pictorial silhouettes rather than properly spatial, monumental entities. The design’s strength is its simplicity; the doughboys just clutter it up.

For the record, the Cameron–Djordjevitch and McCrery–Fagan designs are not posted on the memorial commission’s website. Neither was submitted in the stipulated digital format.

And what of the modernist finalists? Well, one offers a curiously folded or faceted landscape dotted with little illuminated holes in the ground and a diagonal allée punctuated with upright, text-laden glass blocks with water dribbling down their cores. Another features a stark raised plaza with the Pershing statue, flanked on three sides by sunken paths lined with benches and figurative relief sculpture or photographic imagery. Then there’s a crazy one whose landscape features a multitude of rectilinear cavities in which photographic images are encased, with weird bronze manikins peering down into a few of them to show bewildered visitors what on earth they’re supposed to do here. And finally, another crazy one, whose squiggling landforms are meant to evoke war-ravaged countryside, with twisting pedestrian paths and curving copper embankments digitally perforated with photographic imagery. It looks like the worst nightmare Robert Trent Jones ever had.

The finalist designs will undergo further development as their authors receive feedback from the memorial commission and officials from Washington’s design-review boards and other agencies. The commission plans to announce the winning design early next year.

Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington, D.C.

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