The World War One Centennial Commission has decided to go forward and endorse a winning design in the competition to create a new national memorial to the Great War at Pershing Park. Today, a design jury announced its selection, and the commission endorsed it: The winning plan is called “The Weight of Sacrifice,” created by the 25-year-old architect Joseph Weishaar, in collaboration with the established figurative sculptor Sabin Howard. It is a cautious choice, a design full of figurative sculpture and bronze, integrated into a simple double-plaza groundplan that won’t offend traditionalists,
But the design selected also suggests that both the commission and the jury were alert to the real possibility that the site selected for the memorial — a 1.6 acre parcel on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House — could ultimately end up on the National Register of Historic Places. That would greatly complicate the creation of a new memorial with the requirement that any new proposal respect the existing park created in 1981 by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg.
Perhaps that explains one uncanny similarity between the winning plan and the current park. Before it was allowed to follow into decay and eventually disuse, Friedberg’s park was beloved as a modernist oasis of green and trees and water in the middle of one of Washington’s busiest corridors of power. The park has a sunken square pool on one side, and an open plaza with a statue of Gen. John H. Pershing on the other. Weishaar’s design has a large rectangular swath of green on one side and a smaller memorial square with a L-shaped addition on the other. Both fill the existing boundaries of the square with two basically rectilinear forms, while Weishaar’s design creates a more open relationship to the surrounding streets by elevating rather than sinking the park’s central space.
Vice Chair of the Centennial Commission Edwin Fountain said that the jury was alert to the process already underway to determine whether or not the existing park design should be declared historically significant and concerns from preservationists. He rejected the idea that the commission had endorsed a compromise park, but acknowledged, as a virtue, the “complementarity in purposes” between the existing design and the proposed memorial.
He also stressed the jury had selected a concept and a team — Weishaar and Sabin will work with the architectural firm GWWO Inc. and Phoebe Lickwar Landscape Architect — not a final design. Anyone who has watched the extended process of creating a memorial in Washington knows that the design could evolve greatly from what it is now.
And so it’s easy to see how the winning plan might have been attractive for all of the ways in which its basic design could become more of an overlay on Friedberg’s existing park, rather than a wholesale destruction of it.
One of the principal groups defending the existing Friedberg park, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, wasn’t happy with the commission’s decision to go forward with a selection of a winner. Charles A. Birnbaum, head of the Foundation, said that despite paying lip service to preservation concerns, “they opted for conflict over collaboration.”
Fountain also emphasized that the design winner was sensitive to the need for quiet or reflective space, one of the significant virtues of Friedberg’s park. And the text submitted with the winning design suggests that there is at least a metaphorical compatibility between Weishaar’s concept and Friedberg’s original plan: “The integration of a park around and atop the memorial alludes to the idea that public space and personal freedom are only available through the sacrifice of our soldiers.”
It’s possible to read into that a vision of the memorial that uses the fact of an urban oasis to remind visitors of the cost of maintaining the luxury of open, public space in a democratic society. The park itself is the reward of sacrifice.
Conceived of in that sense, it wouldn’t be a stretch to maintain the bulk of the Friedberg park while integrating some of the bronze figurative sculptural reliefs that provide the main connection to the war and memory in Weishaar’s design.
But no one is talking in those terms yet, and it will be a long process before a final design is presented and approved by design oversight groups. Before it advances any further, the architect and the commission will want to be certain about the ultimate fate of Friedberg’s park. Before that is determined, it makes little sense to develop the existing design, no matter how compatible it ultimately may be with the preservation agenda.