March 2, 2024

WASHINGTON – Monuments to the war dead of the 20th century are one of the central attractions in the country’s capital. So it has always been remarkable that one of the most momentous American conflicts, World War I, failed to find national recognition.

Now that the United States is pulling out of its longest war, a memorial to one of the most complicated is due to open on Friday, which officially opened in Washington after years of entanglements between monument preservers, city planners, federal officials and the commission that brought it about.

The first flag was hoisted at the memorial in Pershing Park near the White House – rather than along the National Mall where many devotees had imagined it – in a place where office workers once hurried to ice skate, sip cocoa, and nibble lunch sandwiches sat underneath the crepe myrtle. Battles over the monument’s location, accuracy, and size were part of his journey.

“Our goal was to create a memorial that would go hand in hand with other monuments and raise World War I in American consciousness,” said Edwin L. Fountain, deputy chairman of the World War I Centennial Commission, recognizing that this was the case In contrast to these monuments there must be a monument and a city park. “

The only original allusion to the war in the park, a statute of General John J. Pershing who commanded the American expeditionary forces in Europe, will remain on the edge of space. At the center of the monument, however, is a large wall that has its final feature: a 58-foot bronze sculpture that, depending on your point of view, is either a bold testimony to the importance of the mission or an impairment of its natural environment.

The design, restoration of the original park, and construction of the new monument will cost $ 42 million. The commission still has $ 1.4 million available.

The sculpture “A Soldier’s Journey” tells the story of an American from reluctant service member to returned war hero in a series of scenes with 38 characters. They are designed to convey the story of the country’s transformation from an isolationist to a leader on the world stage and create a definitive visual reference to the next great war. The play had its own trip from New York to New Zealand to the Cotswolds of England, one with live models in period clothes and thousands of iPhone photos and other technology to capture the models in motion.

Critics – many of whom have fought the concept of Mr. Fountain with every available tactic – say the structure is incapable of marrying a historically significant park with a grand dream monument.

“The real question is: did the monument use the power of the place where it is now?” said Charles A. Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscapes Foundation, who attempted to add the park to the national register of historic places, thereby cutting down on the commemorative planners’ large-scale plans. “Has it succeeded in integrating into a place in a federal city that is unique in serving tourists and residents?”

The park, designed by M. Paul Friedberg, a well-known landscape architect, and built in 1981, was in ruins when the foundation stone for the memorial was laid in 2017. A popular ice rink was closed in 2006 due to mechanical problems and never reopened; The nooks and crannies were littered with garbage and pigeons that preferred to eat it.

Admittedly, it wasn’t anyone’s first choice for a memorial. Quarrels of a very Washington kind engulfed the effort.

Texas Republican Ted Poe spent years trying to expand the memorial effort on the National Mall before retiring. Congress considered converting the District of Columbia War Memorial at the end of the mall into a national memorial. Washington officials firmly opposed this, as did Missouri lawmakers who wanted no competition for the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. The Ministry of the Interior was also not interested in the project.

In 2014, Congress decided on Pershing Park. In 2016, Joseph Weishaar, a 25-year-old architect, and Sabin Howard, a neo-classical sculptor in New York, were selected to create the giant sculpture after winning a design competition.

“I made a very myopic, classic male figurative sculpture that came from Hellenistic art,” said Howard. “Neither of us was ready. It’s just insane. You are entering this process that could cost you 15 years of your life. “

Given the location of the monument, the pace moved significantly faster than the National Mall, despite multiple reviews by the US Fine Arts Commission and other federal agencies.

Mr Howard began hiring models in 2016 – as did his daughter Madeleine, who played the role of the young girl in the sculpture – who dressed in antique clothes and played fight scenes when he was in a studio with 12,000 images on his iPhone made in the South Bronx. The project continued in New Zealand, where Mr. Howard made film props using special technology to create the first model for commission review.

Next, he and his models packed up for the Cotswolds, where he used a special foundry to begin his sculpting, which is now being completed at his studio in Englewood, NJ

Mr. Howard said he was aware of making the sculpture visually appealing but also educational. “My client said,” You have to do something that dramatizes World War I enough that visitors want to go home and learn more about it, “he said.

However, accuracy gave way to artistic license. The piece, which shows black, Latin American and Native American soldiers, blurs reality. At a meeting with the commission in 2018, Toni Griffin, a member, noted that in World War I black soldiers did not normally fight white soldiers as shown and suggested that “the sculpture should represent the authentic experience,” so the minutes from the meeting.

While changing the black troops’ helmets to reflect this, Mr. Howard said he was unaffected by the broader argument. “You had segregation in the army,” he said in an interview. “On the battlefield, however, there is no difference.” Even when black soldiers were portrayed in a historically incorrect way, he said, “They had to be treated as equals.”

It is a notable coincidence that the memorial opens to visitors during a pandemic, much like the flu outbreak that killed thousands of troops in the trenches during the war. “The flu wasn’t on my head,” said Mr. Howard. “What I thought was a pro-human act increase.”

The memorial is unlikely to suppress longstanding criticism that too many memorials in Washington focus on war and death.

“There are marginalized stories that could be celebrated and sobering stories about the reality of the war experience that could more effectively honor the victim,” said Phoebe Lickwar, who was a landscape architect in the early stages of the project. “Instead, we are presented with a banal narrative and a glorification of the struggle.”