The Forgotten War Memorial

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The D.C. War Memorial sits derelict in a grove of trees just south of West Potomac Park. Once the site of Marine Corps concerts commemorating our nation's fallen, the neglected Doric temple now seems little more than a relic of a long-forgotten war. With the National World War II Memorial just to the east and the Lincoln Memorial to the west, the memorial honoring those who died in the Great War will go largely unnoticed by the crowds visiting the Mall this Fourth of July weekend. This is a shame, and it doesn't have to be so.

When the United States entered World War I, the District was second to none in the mobilization of its citizenry. In all, Washington would give 26,000 men and women to the war effort, and 535 of them would never return home. To honor this sacrifice, Washingtonians raised nearly $200,000 for the construction of a memorial. The effort included the District's 70,000 schoolchildren, each of whom was asked to donate five cents to the fund. An overwhelming number did, and these children proudly wore buttons bearing "535" in remembrance of the dead. The domed temple was completed and dedicated at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1931 -- the 13th anniversary of Armistice Day. Built by the people of Washington, the memorial listed all those who gave their lives, regardless of sex, race or class, with each name etched upon the white marble structure.

On the eve of the memorial's dedication, the Star ran an editorial titled "The War Memorial." Proud of its city's achievements and thinking ahead to future generations, the paper said, "it is a pleasing thought to believe that when many, many years have rolled over the hill and the children of our children pause a moment over the names carved on this memorial they can look about them . . . and say, 'they built well.' "

And build it well they did. Yet today, after decades of neglect, the memorial stands decayed among overgrown brush. No major maintenance work has taken place in more than 30 years. No noticeable signage indicates its presence, and the once-proud structure now seems to recoil into the unkempt landscape, resigned to its place in our forgotten history.

The D.C. Preservation League listed the memorial on its annual list of most endangered places in 2003 and 2006, and it continues to advocate for preservation and restoration of this special site. While the National Park Service has conducted a historic resources survey to ascertain how much restoration is needed, funding is limited and the memorial is not a priority.

The Star editorial concluded with a call to future generations: "We build, and leave the still unfinished work for those who follow us to accomplish." This responsibility is now ours. We must continue to remember and honor the soldiers of Washington who gave their lives in the Great War, and there can be no better way of doing so than by restoring the grand marble memorial that bears their names.

In May, Frank Buckles, the sole surviving American World War I veteran, visited the memorial and noted its derelict state. Speaking for a generation that answered the call to arms from across the entire nation, he also voiced a larger vision -- for it to be rededicated as a national World War I Memorial, equal in honor to the other war memorials nearby.

As a first step, the D.C. Preservation League has started a fund to restore Washington's World War I memorial to its former glory. Donations can be made online at

-- Rebecca A. Miller -- Christopher Armstrong


Rebecca A. Miller is executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. Christopher Armstrong is a D.C. Preservation League volunteer.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company