Sunday, May 28, 2017

Photo of the Day: DC’s Great War Memorial

Three years ago, I came upon this local memorial to World War I by accident while walking around DC. I was in the midst that day of visiting similar tributes to our nation’s war dead in the capital—for the Vietnam, Korean and World War II conflicts.

Even though I had never heard about a similar national memorial for the Great War, I still half-expected to come across it. I never saw one—and it’s unlikely that you have, either. Although there is one in Kansas City, there is none in Washington.

Over a century ago, wars were commemorated at the local level, “rooted in place, practiced on the town square and generally modest in scale,” according to this January 2016 article by Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott. All over the country, such a relatively modest sculpture might include a list of local boys fallen in the conflict.

Just like the wrenching conflict it recalled, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial upended all those assumptions. With that first national war memorial in place, pressure grew inexorably to commemorate “The Forgotten War,” in Korea. And, as the “Greatest Generation” began passing away in earnest, the movement to pay tribute to the heroes of World War II took on enough urgency that it was almost inevitable that a memorial for that conflict would be constructed, too.

No such demographic urgency exists for a World War I memorial; its last known veteran passed away in 2011. Nevertheless, a different kind of logic is now proving operative in this case: an educational one. With the completion of a tribute to the heroes of the Great War, the nation’s capital will have a national memorial for each 20th-century war in which a military draft required the services of a large part of America’s young.

As a result of Congressional legislation passed a few years ago, the prospective site of the memorial is Pershing Park on Pennsylvania Avenue. Though without the visibility of the National Mall, it also promises to bring the square (named, of course, for the general of all American armies in the war) a level of attention it had never achieved when it was designed in 1981 by architect M. Paul Friedberg.
In the meantime, curious Washington tourists will want to check out the DC War Memorial on the bandstand at West Potomac Park. Designed by noted architect Frederick H. Brooke with his associates Nathan C. Wyeth and Horace W. Peaslee—all veterans of the Great War—it was dedicated on Armistice Day 1931. 

The Doric structure is 47 feet high with a diameter of 44 feet—large enough to accommodate the entire U.S. Marine Band. Following 2010 restoration funding, the memorial now gleams in something close to its original, brilliant white color, with new pathways and lighting systems to make it more visitor-friendly.

If you look along the memorial’s four-feet high circular marble platform, you’ll notice the names of the 499 DC residents who died in the war. They are inscribed in alphabetical order with no distinction made to rank, race, or gender. Although that has an obvious utilitarian function in terms of locating names, it also underscores the traditional American insistence on equality—an aspiration that even governs unto death.

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