Vietnam Wall Visitor Center Approved

On Mother's Day this year, tributes to service members' mothers were laid at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is the most popular site on the Mall.
On Mother's Day this year, tributes to service members' mothers were laid at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is the most popular site on the Mall. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2006

The federal commission with final say over monuments and memorials in the nation's capital gave the green light yesterday for the newest addition to America's front yard: a sprawling underground Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center that will be constructed between the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.

The center will be the first new memorial project on the coveted Mall since the National World War II Memorial was built. Preservationists, who have wanted to conserve the Lincoln Memorial's grounds, fought the center. But the project was championed by some veterans groups that have long been troubled by the understated nature of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall and want to provide more history and context for its list of more than 58,000 Americans killed or missing in the war.

With memorial space at a premium in Washington -- where some groups have quietly fought for years to get patches of land inside traffic circles for memorial statues or slivers of pocket parks for monuments -- the Vietnam veterans won one of the biggest prizes of all yesterday.

"It's a good day. This was a long time in coming," Jan C. Scruggs, president and founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, said after the National Capital Planning Commission approved the project yesterday.

The project has drawn criticism because of its potential to convey conclusions about a conflict that tore the country apart. But Scruggs said the 25,000-square-foot center will be a neutral, fact-based presentation that will pay tribute to U.S. soldiers. It may include a movie theater, a three-dimensional battle scene, mementos left at the memorial, and a wall where pictures of slain soldiers will be projected on their birthdays, creating a dynamic tribute that changes daily.

Because it will be the only sizable visitor center dedicated to a single conflict's veterans, some planners worry that it will create an opening for others to lobby for similar additions to memorial rotundas, fountains or statues in Washington.

"Each memorial will ask for their own visitor center," warned Elizabeth Merritt, deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who testified against the project at the commission meeting yesterday.

Not all veterans like the project. Vietnam War veteran Ray Saikus flew in from Cleveland yesterday to tell the planning commission that an underground "bunker or tunnel" is insensitive to veterans who fought enemies underground. "It will be more a tribute to the Viet Cong," Saikus said.

He also said his fellow veterans in the Midwest believe that an underground center is "being placed out of sight, hidden as if in shame."

Planners do want it out of sight -- but for aesthetic reasons.

According to 14 design guidelines established by the planning commission yesterday and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts last week that must be followed as a condition of approval, no portion of the center can be visible from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Constitution Avenue or surrounding streets.

The center must be built below the existing grade on the land surrounding the Lincoln Memorial. Any skylights, monitors, light wells or sunken areas cannot be seen from surrounding sidewalks, according to the commissions' guidelines.

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