It took more than 40 years to build the Washington Memorial obelisk, the marble spire that symbolizes the capital city, but in the last few years monuments and plans for monuments threaten to create a new version of the petrified forest on the banks of the Potomac.
The recent building fever has produced Constitution Gardens, containing stones honoring the signers of the Declaration of Independence, completed in 1984 to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial; the Navy memorial under construction on Pennsylvania Avenue, which honors Navy war dead; and the Vietnam War Memorial, opened in 1982, which is credited with creating a national passion for remembrance.
And numerous other projects have been initiated, ranging from a museum dedicated to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust to a memorial to the nation’s law officers killed in the line of duty. A design competition for a Korean War veterans’ memorial, to be built on the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial, was announced last month.
The man behind the Vietnam War Memorial, Jan Scruggs, became a model for advocates of subsequent projects. Scruggs, an ex-GI who was unhappy about public attitudes toward those who had fought in America’s most unpopular war, came out of a screening of the movie “The Deer Hunter” in 1979 determined to erect a national memorial for those who died in Southeast Asia.
With other veterans, he lobbied for congressional backing, built a nationwide network and successfully defended a controversial design by a young architecture student, Maya Lin. Scruggs became a recognized expert on memorials, so much so that he reluctantly agreed to head the organization for the law enforcement monument.
Societal Healing Cited
“The Vietnam memorial because of its success in bringing attention to Vietnam veterans and bringing about a societal healing has resulted in other groups wanting to do the same,” he said. “The cops saw the Vietnam memorial and they wanted the same kind of recognition. They said: ‘We’re taking casualties every day.’ ”
The police memorial, which has been approved by Congress, still requires design approval and private funding, and Scruggs, who left the drive for the new memorial last year after getting it under way, is now in law school.
Another memorial gaining impetus from the Vietnam project is one honoring black slaves and freedmen who fought in the American Revolution, although the proposal was conceived earlier by Maurice A. Barboza.
Barboza said he was originally inspired by the long battle fought by his aunt, Lena Santos Ferguson of Washington, to become the first black member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which she accomplished in 1985.
Granted Site on Mall
“The Vietnam memorial was a great inspiration to us, and the veterans’ organizations were very supportive of us,” Barboza said. His request for a site on the Mall in part of Constitution Gardens was approved by Congress on the same day in 1985 that the Korean War and the Women in the Military Services memorials were approved. Barboza, who has yet to begin serious fund raising, estimates that the monument will cost $4 million.
Including statues of military heroes, the National Park Service counts 110 monuments under its care in the capital region. In the last four years, Congress has approved construction of nine more memorials. Eighteen projects were introduced in Congress last session, although only one, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, gained approval. And 24 other proposals that have yet to obtain congressional sponsors are on record at the Park Service.
Sociologists hail the monument trend as an affirmation of cultural values.
Monuments are a cultural necessity, said Robert N. Bellah, Elliott professor of sociology at UC Berkeley. “They tell you what your real values are.”
Although he cautioned against “national self-worship,” Bellah is concerned that Americans today are almost anti-historical and says that the building of monuments can be a corrective action.
“My students don’t know what the Vietnam War was about,” he said. “In this heavily TV-oriented culture, about the only thing they share is ‘L.A. Law.’ Anything that will make them think a little, to me that’s not bad.”
Prof. John Meyer of Stanford University believes that the memorial boom underscores Washington’s status as a symbol of U.S. world leadership.
“It’s analogous to an imperial capital,” the sociologist said. “I don’t think American society is centralized but America’s role in the world is, and our international leadership has moved from New York to Washington.”
He pointed out that the new monuments are massive in scale, flanked by vast new museums “filled with imperial booty.” The memorials are expensive, too, he said, noting that the Vietnam War Memorial cost more than $11 million.
Traditionally, private donors have provided the bulk of financing, although the federal government has frequently helped to complete projects. The slow pace of fund raising was responsible for the 41-year construction time of the Washington Memorial, begun in 1844. Congress finally acted in 1876 to supply $800,000 of the $1,187,710 needed to finish the job by 1885.
The federal government paid the entire $3,089,720 cost of the Lincoln Memorial in 1911, but the Vietnam memorial went back to the original pattern of being financed by a private organization.
But, even with private financing, the construction of the Vietnam memorial was filled with controversy. Dissident veterans’ groups, led by Navy Secretary James E. Webb, called the depressed, V-shaped wall a “gash of shame” and insisted on the addition of more traditional statuary and a U.S. flag. A compromise solution by the Commission of Fine Arts placed a group of three GIs in combat gear in a grove of trees at some distance from the wall.
Even now, the memorial remains a source of contention for some. A servicewomen’s group that has received initial congressional approval to add a statue of a woman to the group of three servicemen is facing opposition.
The battle seems to be a replay of the original design dispute. Opponents of the women’s memorial, using the same arguments employed against the statue of the servicemen, say it destroys the integrity of Lin’s design.
But Diane Evans, an Army nurse who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 and organized the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project Inc. in 1983, said: “Once the men are there, three men representing all men, we’re entitled to one statue representing the 10,000 women who served. And we’ve had tremendous support from men on this.”
Although funding and initial congressional permission have been obtained, the statue must be approved by the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts before going to Congress a second time.
Other groups have requested representation at the Vietnam memorial, too. American Indians have asked that an Indian be represented, but no legislative proposal to do so has been introduced.
Jerry L. Rogers, a deputy director of the National Park Service, wrote to one proponent of Indian representation that the sculptor “used black, Caucasian and Hispanic models to suggest the diversity of the combatants. It was, of course, not possible to represent each and every ethnic group or race in the three-piece sculptural grouping.”
A memorial must go through many steps before permission to build on federal land is granted. First, a project must have a congressional sponsor. Then it must be reviewed by the National Capital Memorial Commission, an eight-member group headed by the National Park Services director. Although the commission’s power is only advisory, Congress has not authorized a monument without the commission’s backing since the body was created.
After both houses of Congress approve the project, the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts must approve it before construction may begin. If the sponsors of a memorial want it placed in the core monument area--the Mall and both banks of the Potomac from Georgetown downstream to the Jefferson Memorial--Congress must approve it a second time.
As the demand for memorials increases, space for them is growing scarce.
The site for the Korean memorial, given preliminary approval by all agencies involved, is an area called Ash Woods, northeast of the Lincoln Memorial.
It leaves little space available in Area 1--the core area, which, according to the 1986 “commemorative works” act, is reserved for works “of preeminent historical and lasting significance to the nation.” More space remains in Area 2, the federally owned parks in Washington and Arlington, the Virginia county that was once part of the District of Columbia.
Future monuments are further restricted by the act’s requirement that they protect “to the maximum extent practicable, open space and existing public use,” which has already resulted in the reduction of the longest-pending memorial, that to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The ambitious design by architect Lawrence Halprin, approved by Congress in 1978, calls for a massive granite wall along the shore of the Tidal Basin in the area between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Until its subsequent reduction, the proposal would also have obliterated playing fields along the Potomac to make way for parking lots and an auditorium.
The shrunken project is still estimated to cost $35 million, and Congress, mindful of increasing opposition to grandiose memorials in an era when public concern leans toward preservation of green space, has refused to appropriate the money.
“We probably can’t take another big architectural memorial in Area 1,” said John Parsons, who represents Park Service Director William Penn Mott Jr. in the deliberations of the National Capital Memorial Commission set up by the commemorative works act to monitor memorials.
Despite the financial and governmental obstacles facing memorials, their supporters are driven by powerful emotions.
Barboza, who quit his job in Connecticut two years ago to work full time on the project honoring blacks who fought in the American Revolution, said his interest started in childhood with a fading photograph of an ancestor who had been a Union soldier in the Civil War. After tracing his family line in 1978 to Revolutionary times, he conceived the idea of a memorial and in 1985 persuaded Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) to offer a bill.
Permission to place the monument in Constitution Gardens realized Barboza’s hope that it would be within sight of the Lincoln Memorial, from whose steps Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in 1963, and Constitution Hall, whose doors were closed in 1939 to the famed black soprano, Marian Anderson. Anderson sang instead at the Lincoln Memorial.
“I want people to walk around the lake (in the gardens) and think about black slaves being brought across the Atlantic,” he said, “and to look at the Lincoln Memorial and think of Martin Luther King’s dream and to remember Marian Anderson and think of how blacks struggled to make themselves part of America.”