It took more than three years for the leaders behind a proposed Desert Storm memorial to secure the plot of federal land they want to build their project.
The World War I memorial has a site and a winner of a national design competition, but its officials are still tweaking and adjusting their plans to get clearance to build.
And then there’s the cautionary tale of the 20 years it will have taken the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial to move from authorization to opening in 2021.
A memorial’s journey from concept to reality can be painfully slow in this historical city. After securing congressional authorization — itself a challenging process — a memorial committee must get approval for its location, create a design that passes muster with two commissions and raise 110 percent of the construction budget. And these steps must be completed before construction begins.
Sometimes the oversight seems fickle, sometimes contradictory, and often the sponsors seem frustrated by the process. The process’s unpredictable zig and zag was on view last week at the Commission of Fine Arts, where leaders of the proposed National Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial sought approval to build on the corner of Constitution Avenue and 23rd Street at the northwest corner of the Mall.
The CFA had already passed on the site — twice. But this time, the sponsors came with a different design concept and the backing of the other federal agency, the National Capital Planning Commission, as well as support from the National Park Service. The memorial’s leaders hoped to resolve a situation that one of the Fine Arts commissioners described as “a pickle.”
“They keep telling me what an anomaly this is, an unusual situation,” said Scott C. Stump, president of the National Desert Storm War Memorial Association, before the meeting. “I’m looking at this from a common sense standpoint, which I’m learning you can’t always do in Washington.”
The Desert Storm memorial officials spent a year trying to get approval for a design concept that several members of the CFA found unsuitable to the location near the Lincoln Memorial. Eleven months after their first presentation, the memorial’s leaders returned with a more parklike design. The large hook-shaped wall of Kuwaiti limestone and the 34 flagpoles representing the coalition countries were replaced by a quarter-acre parabola-shaped plaza embedded in the site’s grassy slope. “We listened to your feedback, we took it to heart,” Stump said.
A divided CFA approved the location, with several saying that if the memorial’s leaders had presented this landscaped approach earlier, they would have voted for it. The elated officials can now turn their attention to the design of the $25 million project. Their goal is to open in 2021, the 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm.
“National memorials always take much longer” than other projects that come before the panel, CFA Secretary Thomas Luebke said. “There are so many inputs, so many considerations, so many constituencies and different aesthetics to consider. So much goes in to the design development,” he said.
Charles Birnbaum, a former National Park Service staffer who is now president of the nonprofit Cultural Landscape Foundation, said projects that approach the regulatory process in a collaborative manner tend to fare better.
“It’s such an incredible gift to our built city, the thoroughness that happens on these committees,” Birnbaum said.
Leaders of the World War I Memorial have been rebuffed on their plan to construct their winning design by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard that features a large-scale bronze sculptural wall in Pershing Park, a terraced space on Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street designed by architect M. Paul Friedberg and opened in 1981. Pershing Park has been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, requiring that the memorial’s designers incorporate its preservation into their plan. The original design has been repeatedly scaled back, but not enough to satisfy the panels.
“The concerns that have been raised most recently have been raised since the beginning,” Birnbaum said about the memorial’s design. “The story here is be a better listener. Don’t be stubborn. Let’s remember we’re dealing with the public realm.”
World War I Centennial Commission Vice Chairman Edwin Fountain said the committee had studied other projects, including the Eisenhower memorial, and was aware of the give and take.
“We knew at the outset . . . that the sponsor doesn’t get to show up and say ‘This is our design,’ ” Fountain said. “There are ongoing discussions with the numerous agencies involved. We are continuing to work with them to find the overlapping sweet spot of locating this memorial sculpture in a historic landscape.”
Memorial officials have met with Friedberg twice to hear his suggestions, Fountain said. They plan to appear before the Commission of Fine Arts again next month.