Keeping the memory of WWI alive with plans for a national memorial

Millions of Americans who served during the Great War may soon be memorialized in the nation’s capital. The winning design by 25-year-old architect Joe Weishaar was selected from more than 360 proposals for the National World War I Memorial in Washington. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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    Pershing Park in downtown Washington, D.C., was buried in snow this week. The two-acre park is a block from the Treasury Department and White House and just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol.

    The statue of the man it's named for, General John Pershing, commander of U.S. forces in World War I, stood tall above the white carpet. If all goes as hoped for by a group called the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, this will be the site of the first national memorial to commemorate this country's involvement in the war.

    Edwin Fountain is the group's vice chairman.

  • EDWIN FOUNTAIN, U.S. WWI Centennial Commission:

    World War I is very much lost in our national consciousness. It was subsumed by the depression and by World War II. It didn't have the wealth of newsreel and nightly news coverage and Hollywood production and other media and popular culture that later wars did.

    We're now two or three generations beyond the people who fought it. It's quickly receding in our national memory. And it shouldn't.


    World War I, the so-called Great War, began in July 1914 and ended with the armistice on November 11, 1918.

    Overall, some 38 million soldiers and civilians were killed or wounded in one of history's bloodiest conflicts, mostly waged in Europe. The U.S. joined the fighting in 1917, deploying two million soldiers overseas; 116,516 were killed, more than in Korea and Vietnam combined.

    Sandra Pershing's husband was the general's grandson.

  • SANDRA PERSHING, U.S. WWI Centennial Commission:

    The general loved his troops, and he really would have wanted to be surrounded by images of everybody that helped during the war.

    And I think it can be a very nice tribute to everyone who fought and served, and to a lot of people now who can be here and enjoy it, and look around and say, thank you. We're free.


    The commission, authorized by Congress in 2013, received 360 design submissions from around the world, and an independent jury winnowed those to five, titled World War I Grotto of Remembrance, Heroes Green, an American Family Portrait Wall in the Park, Plaza to a Forgotten War, and the winning design concept, announced yesterday, called the Weight of Sacrifice.

    It was created by 25-year-old Joe Weishaar, just two years out of an architecture program at the University of Arkansas and yet to have his official license. He will work on the memorial with sculptor Sabin Howard and a Baltimore architecture firm.

    JOE WEISHAAR, Winner, WWI Memorial design concept: There's no way that I would have imagined that, at 25, I would be doing something like this.


    Weishaar lives in Chicago, where I reached him earlier today.


    What drew me into the competition was kind of the realization, as soon as I saw the competition, that there wasn't a World War I memorial in D.C., and I wanted to participate in that process. I wanted to help create something for the people of the war.


    Weishaar's design includes two distinct spaces, including figurative sculptures and a small park, all ringed by maple trees.


    The upper plaza space is really supported by the walls.

    The idea, at least in some great metaphor, is that public space in this country is a granted right because of freedom. And the people of the war fought for that freedom in — both domestically and abroad. And so, again, the great narrative, the upper plaza is really being supported by the protection of freedom, and then the lower plaza is really a reflection of the past and a record of the past.


    If the Pershing statue represents the great man older style of memorials, the commission was clearly looking to the more contemporary abstract style that began with Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

    Since then, monuments to the Korean and Second World War have also been built on the National Mall.

  • PHILIP KENNICOTT, Washington Post Architecture Critic:

    The best thing about this design is the simplicity of it and the fact the designer has been sensitive to the existing parks' sense of an oasis in the city.


    But Philip Kennicott, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for The Washington Post, raised a larger question as to whether a national memorial is needed.


    We have to remember that the first World War is already very, very well-memorialized, many, many cities, towns, squares, villages, they have a World War I memorial.

    So, if we think about memory, the problem here is not the lack of places to go and think about the war. It's a lack of willingness and understanding of the war in the first place. So, we could actually create a new way of memorializing that returned us to these existing memorials and reconnected us with the history and the honor that is built into them already.


    Edwin Fountain says honoring the war requires a national spotlight.


    I think most Americans don't realize that scale of that sacrifice and what it represents in terms of what our soldiers and sailors and Marines accomplished over there. That, to the commission, needs to be commemorated with the same weight as we have remembered the other wars of the 20th century on the National Mall.


    In any case, this week's announcement is not the end of the process. Money must be raised, an estimated $30 million to $35 million, all to come from private donors.

    And the design, construction, and everything else about the project must go through myriad reviews. Still, the commission hopes to break ground in 2017, and dedicate the memorial a year later, on Veterans Day, the 100-year anniversary of the armistice.

    And, yes, they say, the statue of Gen. Pershing will remain in whatever shape the memorial finally takes.

    I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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