An effort by a local group to build a memorial to Benjamin Banneker was sidetracked last week when the National Capital Memorial Commission voted unanimously to reject a request to place a statue at Banneker Circle in Southwest Washington, choosing to study another nearby location.
Banneker was an African American inventor and self-taught mathematician who helped survey the nation's capital in the 1790s. He also built the first all American-made clock when he was 22.
The Washington Interdependence Council, a group formed to promote and finance the memorial, presented an elaborate proposal that would turn the five-block-long L'Enfant Promenade and Banneker Circle into a Banneker memorial. It would include a visitors' center near the Independence Avenue end of the promenade, a clock atop a tall pedestal halfway down the promenade and a statue of Banneker in the circle on the south end of the promenade.
The memorial is contingent on the city-planned rehabilitation of L'Enfant Promenade, built in the early 1970s to provide access to office buildings, a hotel and the Southwest waterfront.
The commission, after much discussion last Thursday, decided to consult with the District government about placing a Banneker memorial midpoint on the promenade, across from L'Enfant Hotel. The promenade is under the jurisdiction of the District government, and the circle belongs to the National Park Service.
Peggy C. Seats, executive director of the nonprofit council, reacted angrily to the decision, telling the commission her group would support a memorial only if the memorial is placed on Banneker Circle. She said that several years of preparation on an extremely limited budget had gone into the $17 million proposal and that successful fund-raising efforts would be tied to that particular site. The estimated cost does not include the city's rehabilitation of the promenade.
"We are not willing to consider another site," she said.
Seats said a memorial on the circle--most likely a statue--would draw millions of visitors to the site and would be a special attraction to African Americans.
"We expect to build a world-class memorial to Mr. Banneker," Seats said. "Mr. Banneker will serve as an inspiration, [by] looking at all he accomplished at a time when he experienced much harshness of life. His work was most challenging."
Jim Evans, chief of resource allocations for the city's Department of Public Works, said the city was prepared to rehabilitate the deteriorating promenade with partial funding from the federal Department of Transportation. However, when pressed by a commission member, he said work on the promenade was not dependent on a memorial being built on the circle.
Chairman John G. Parsons, representing the National Park Service on the commission, asserted that the memorial was too large. If the promenade and the circle were jointly approved, together they would create the city's largest memorial, he said, larger than the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. "We could put 10 memorials on this property," he said.
Charles Atherton, who represents the Commission of Fine Arts on the Memorial Commission, was concerned that someone standing on Independence Avenue can't see the circle. He said the promenade rises gradually at about midpoint and then descends to the circle.
"It wouldn't draw you," he said. "Pedestrians have to be drawn to a site."
If the commission had supported the proposal, the project still would have been subject to a series of reviews by the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission before construction could begin. All memorials to be built on federal land go through the same extensive review process.
On Monday, Seats said she was upset by the commission's reluctance to support a memorial on the circle because the Park Service had rededicated Benjamin Banneker Park--as the traffic circle and an adjoining grassy slope are known--in November 1997. At the time, the Park Service repaired a water fountain and added an interpretive sign that recounted Banneker's accomplishments.
Parsons announced at the meeting that the commission would try to take up the issue of the site again at its September meeting. Seats said she plans to be there with many more supporters and will push for an endorsement of the circle location.
"The commission action was illegal," she said. "They are dealing with a site outside their jurisdiction. You can be sure we are not giving up on this."