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The beauty of an ugly memorial

By Marla Brown Fogelman,

The controversy over the design of the Eisenhower Memorial reminds me, unhappily, of the acrimony surrounding the conception and birth of the National World War II Memorial — a process that was just as fraught with pain, complications and dissenting opinions among architecture mavens, journalists, celebrities and ordinary Americans.

As someone who has lived in the D.C. region for the past four decades, I, too, tend to be finicky about my memorials, preferring them to be either grand and uplifting, like Lincoln’s, or spare and somber, like the onyx homage to the Vietnam veterans.

So it was no surprise that my first encounter with the World War II Memorial in 2006 left me (no pun intended) stone-cold. And apparently, mine was not an uncommon opinion. As Post columnist Marc Fisher wrote in May 2004, shortly after it was dedicated, the memorial had “the emotional impact of a slab of granite.”

A few years later, however, when my Greatest Generation parents said they wanted to see the memorial for themselves, I decided to give it a second chance. Initially worried that the seven-acre site might be less than comfortably walkable for them, I was amazed to see that both Mom and Dad appeared to be suddenly buoyed by the sight of the plaza. And I too found myself unexpectedly struck by the scene: The rainbow pool of water fountains, framed by the two semicircles of granite pillars, shimmered against the blue September sky.

I didn’t tell my parents that I had been unmoved by the memorial on my first visit, but fortunately they didn’t seem at all interested in discussing design elements. Instead, as we walked past the bronze bas-relief panels lining the entrance to the plaza, Mom told me that her mother had “rolled bandages for the Red Cross” — a memory she had never before shared with me.

Since Dad was in the Pacific Theater, on Guam, we headed first for that arch, encountering a small cadre of veterans who were also not talking architecture. Some were wearing VFW caps, and others were in T-shirts bearing messages like “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.”

Soon after, at the National Park Service information kiosk, Dad searched the registry for names of hometown friends who had been killed in the war. When the name of his friend Sid, or Benjamin Sidney Steelman, appeared on the screen, Dad told me, “I’m one of the only people who knew his name was really Benjamin.”

Looking at the screen, with Sid’s name at the top and “KIA” at the bottom, I remembered Dad once telling me that he couldn’t believe it when he heard that Sid died in the war.

“He was one of the toughest guys in the neighborhood,” Dad had said.

As we walked back toward the plaza, I thought about the losses and contributions of my parents’ generation. Fisher’s criticism noted that “there is no hint of how Americans of different regions, ethnicities and classes came together to fight evil and save freedom.” Although I’m generally a fan of multiculturalism, in the case of this particular national memorial, I don’t think that architectural or other distinctions between Pvts. Ryan, Rossi, Washington or Cohen are necessary. As befits a war in which all groups served, all are honored as simply Americans, for which I, as a Jewish American woman, am grateful.

And although I still like my national memorials to be architecturally bold or tear-inducing, I became persuaded that day that what the WWII Memorial symbolizes transcends its design — and that in the end, what I and other non-Greatest Generationers think, doesn’t, as Humphrey Bogart told Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” “amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Back on Constitution Avenue, as my parents and I hailed a cab, Mom took a final look at the pillars of the Atlantic and Pacific pavilions and delivered the definitive judgment. “Just beautiful,” she said.

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