The United States got in and out of World War I in well under two years. The U.S. World War I Centennial Commission hopes it can move as quickly. Yesterday, it chose a design for the National World War I Memorial by Joseph Weishaar, a 2013 graduate of the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas. His proposal, titled “The Weight of Sacrifice,” was one of 350 competition entries; five finalists were announced last August.
“People respond to places as much as buildings,” says Weishaar, 25. The main features of his memorial are a new lawn and two works by the New York-based neoclassical sculptor Sabin Howard. One, which Weishaar compares to the famous images of Iwo Jima, depicts three soldiers and a cannon. The other is an 81-foot-long bas relief.
The site for the memorial is Pershing Park, a triangle on Pennsylvania Avenue just two blocks from the White House. It was designed by M. Paul Friedberg with plantings by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates; saving it has become a cause célèbre, with the Cultural Landscape Foundation (CLF) and its president, Charles Birnbaum, at the forefront. Nord Wennerstrom, CLF’s spokesman, expressed disappointment that the memorial commission selected a design that treats the park as a “tabula rasa.”
No one disputes that the park is run-down. Its major feature—a sunken plaza that is meant to be a fountain in summer and an ice rink in winter—could never have been easy to maintain. But Birnbaum says it is maintainable and that neglect is no excuse for demolition.
Weishaar’s biggest “move” is turning the plaza—which Birnbaum says is a “key feature” of the park—into a lawn. Weishaar believes the change is necessary to make the park functional, but otherwise, he says, he has no desire to eradicate Friedberg’s design. “The connections on the western side of the site were done very well, and on the north side, the planter seating offers one of the best views up Pennsylvania Avenue. I’ve preserved those things so people will experience them them as Friedberg designed them. My goal was really to let the center of the park become a habitable space again.”
Weishaar’s design also preserves a statue of General John J. Pershing and two walls flanking it, though with small adjustments to create more of a dialogue between the statue and its setting.
Weishaar, who works at the Chicago firm of Brininstool + Lynch and is in the process of becoming an architect (but designed the memorial on his own time), said he believes it’s important to depict the men who fought in World War I. He visited the websites of hundreds of sculptors looking for someone to depict soldiers realistically, and when he came to Howard’s, he said, he knew his search was done. He cold-called Howard the next day, and the artist (who grew up in New York but spent summers in Italy, where he was exposed to classical art) agreed to “drop everything” to work on the proposal. The team also includes GWWO, Inc./Architects, landscape architect Phoebe Lickwar, and engineering consultants Henry Adams LLC, Keast & Hood, and VBH.
The commission hopes to begin construction in 2017 and to dedicate the memorial in 2018—the centennial of the end of World War I. But Birnbaum expects a long review process. It will help, he said of the memorial commission and Weishaar, “if they’re good listeners.”