Heads up, Washingtonians: A monument may be coming to a park near you, whether you want it or not.
The federal government erects about seven new memorials every decade. In the past, they’ve clustered near the National Mall, and that area’s getting crowded. The solution: Place the overflow smack-dab in the middle of District neighborhoods.
“This is an entire capital city, and we think it makes sense to add visual imagery to neighborhoods and to embellish the quality of places,” says Lucy Kempf of the National Capital Planning Commission, which oversees D.C. development for the federal government.
The idea dates back to Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 design for D.C., which included plenty of parks, circles and triangles intended for statues and memorials. Monument makers, however, tended to cluster their works around the Mall.
“About 10 years ago, we were worried the Mall would be overbuilt,” Kempf says. That’s why, in 2001, the federal government published the Memorials and Museums Master Plan, which calls for new memorials to be distributed in parks throughout the city.
The inevitable clash between the disenfranchised District and the Feds stayed at a simmer for more than a decade, thanks to the slow pace of bureaucracy and the fundraising-stymieing recession. Now, it’s reaching a boil with two proposed memorials in Capitol Hill: One for fallen Peace Corps volunteers, the other for Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion.
There’s already a National Park Service park named for Marion — a 1.5 acre field near the Eastern Market Metro stop. Most locals call it Turtle Park, after a turtle sculpture in the southwest corner, says Capitol Hill resident Sharon Wilson Geno, 47.
“The kids ignore all the nice playground equipment and climb on that concrete turtle,” she says.
On a recent Saturday morning, the turtle was occupied by three girls in puffy coats. On the grass lawn, a half-dozen dogs tussled merrily as their owners chatted.
“I’ve made all my friends through the dog park,” says Theresa Brady, 52, as her poodle chased a French bulldog.
Like many Marion Park regulars, Brady is not happy about the proposed memorial to the park’s namesake. Her concern is largely practical. A statue would break up the field, making it less useful for pick-up soccer or Frisbee.
Other park regulars have issues with Marion’s legacy.
A South Carolina plantation owner and slaveholder, Marion fought against the Cherokee Indians during the French and Indian War. In the Revolutionary War, he used the guerrilla warfare tactics he learned from the Cherokee against the British, earning him the nickname “Swamp Fox.”
“They say Francis Marion is a hero, but who is he a hero to?” says Lawrence Smith, 70, who lives about a block from the park. “The first Americans, who he helped wipe out? I bet they don’t feel that he’s a hero. The African-Americans who were kidnapped and brought here in bondage, do they see him as a hero?”
The proposed placement of the Marion memorial is particularly insensitive, says Capitol Hill resident Peter Glick, 53, since the statue would sit in the shadow of the Progress For Christ Baptist Church, which was built by freed African slaves right after the Civil War.
“The people who lived in this area and who went to this church no doubt escaped from people like Francis Marion,” Glick says.
The memorial does have some support from its would-be neighbors. Mike McEleney, 39, says he’s fine with a statue of Marion, as long as it doesn’t mess up the playground he frequents with his 2-year-old daughter, Iris. Many founding fathers were slave owners, but that didn’t stop us from building monuments to them, McEleney says.
“We get to criticize Francis Marion now because he put his life on the line back then,” he says.
The Marion memorial controversy is the first skirmish in the coming war between those who want federal memorials in neighborhood parks and those who don’t.
Another battle is already taking shape around a Peace Corps memorial that the National Park Service has proposed for a park at First and C streets NW.
On Nov. 15, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that covers that little patch of land voted unanimously against the memorial’s placement there. The group isn’t against the idea of the memorial, they just want to protect their pocket park, says ANC 6C commissioner Daniele Schiffman.
“I can see how the Park Service would think it’s a good thing to put memorials all over our neighborhood, but we want to preserve open space,” she says.
The Marion memorial sponsor, John McCabe, 50, is surprised by the controversy he’s stirred up. A financial adviser from South Carolina, McCabe came up with the idea for the memorial in 2005. The bill authorizing it, which passed in 2008, was sponsored by all six of the state’s Congressional representatives and both Senators.
“In South Carolina, every fifth-grader knows about Francis Marion,” McCabe says. “He was a citizen-soldier who put everything on the line to fight for our freedom, and he’s an inspiration to many people around the country.”
McCabe identified Marion Park as his preferred site, naming several other Capitol Hill parks as alternatives. As for design, he imagines a bronze statue, 1.5 times life-size, but that won’t be up for debate until the location’s been settled.
In answer to neighborhood dissent, McCabe says he has faith in the intricate process that the federal government has laid out for memorial placement and design. (See box.)
“If it goes in Marion Park, great. If not, we will put it somewhere else,” he says.
Opponents may be able to convince the many involved federal entities — including the National Capital Planning Commission, National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts — to put the monument in some other corner of D.C., but there’s little they can do to stop it entirely. If Congress authorizes a memorial, it’s these groups’ job to make it happen, NCPC’s Kempf says.
“The only decision-making entity that can change a federal law is Congress,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to be engaged during the memorial authorization process.”
Of course, D.C. residents have no representation in Congress, a fact that is hardly lost on Marion memorial opponents.
“Why on earth does a guy from South Carolina get to decide what goes in our neighborhood park?” Geno says. “It says a lot about how disenfranchised we are.”
So you want to raise a monument
Francis Marion is getting a memorial; another Marion (Barry) is, so far, statueless. Here’s how to give the mayor for life his due.
1. Persuade Congress to pass a bill authorizing a monument honoring your favorite person, group of people or historical event. Consult the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission to make sure your idea is legit.
2. Raise money to build the thing. The Feds won’t chip in, and you can’t put donors’ names on the memorial. Good luck!
3. Work with the National Park Service to identify potential sites. NPS will then consult with various groups and pick one site to submit to the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts for approval.
4. Propose a design and run it by all previously mentioned groups, plus the State Historic Preservation Officer.
5. Once everyone signs off on the final design, you can begin construction.
Comments, complaints, suggestions
If you’d like to voice your thoughts on proposed locations for the Francis Marion Memorial, now’s your chance. Visit parkplanning.nps.gov/marionmemorial to comment, or attend a meeting Wednesday, Dec. 3, at 6:30 p.m., at Southeast Library (403 Seventh St. SE).
A prior version of the story misspelled Lucy Kempf’s last name.
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