Targeting the Heart of D.C.'s Pershing Park

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Landslide

Targeting the Heart of D.C.'s Pershing Park

Targeting the Heart of D.C.'s Pershing Park
Jun 16, 2017

The proposed design for a World War I Memorial on the site of Pershing Park has changed considerably since the original winning concept – The Weight of Sacrifice – was first selected in January 2016.  The initial proposal would have eradicated the M. Paul Friedberg-designed park, which is part of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic District and has been determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  The WWI Centennial Commission has put forth a revised design that maintains the perimeter of the park; however, they have also proposed inserting a 65-foot-long wall with a bronze bas-relief sculpture into to the area occupied by the central fountain and pool, the very heart of the park.  And, despite admonition from members of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA),which has approval authority over the memorial, the proponents have been insistent on this consequential intervention in the park.  

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Pershing Park, Washington, D.C. - Photo courtesy of Oehme, van Sweden Associates

At the February 16, 2017 CFA meeting, the memorial’s proponents presented their “Pool and Plaza” concept, in which they illustrated their 75-foot-long, 10.5-foot-high wall in place of the current thirteen-foot-wide fountain.  Commission members questioned the scale of the edifice and suggested a more surgical approach to inserting memorial elements into the existing park.  Vice Chair Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, according to detailed meeting minutes:

Advised abandoning the idea of the wall and developing a new concept. She supported treating a memorial here as an insertion in the existing park; she emphasized that the fabric of Pershing Park is intact, and an insertion implies that pieces would be removed and altered in some precise, limited way. She said that the commemorative program has many other potential expressions than the large wall, which is holding back the creativity of the designers; she encouraged them to reimagine the stairs or the [now disused] kiosk as opportunities for commemorative features.

Following the February CFA meeting, the memorial’s proponents again modified their design and three months later at the May 18 CFA meeting presented the latest version, the “Restored Pool Concept,” saying that their intent is “to create a memorial which (sic) shares a symbiotic relationship with the existing park.” According to the proposal, “The existing fountain element is expanded equally north and south to become a larger 65’ wide art object nestled in the western terrace stair.”  The memorial’s proponents claim that they explored four alternatives to the wall, but concluded that none would “meet the commemorative goals of the WWI Commission.” 

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Exhibit A showing differences between existing and proposed design for Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.

Along with the CFA, approval is also required from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC).  Another level of oversight is provided through the Section 106 review process (which refers to a specific part of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966).  TCLF, along with several other organizations and individuals, is an official consulting party to the memorial’s review process, the purpose of which is to “seek ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate any adverse effects on historic properties.”

The Section 106 process uses specific language – preservation, restoration, rehabilitation, etc. – about specific forms of treatment.  It should be noted that memorial proponents' use of the phrase “restored pool” is incorrect.  This is not a restoration.  The existing fountain would not be “expanded,” it would be eradicated and replaced with a 65-foot-long bronze bas-relief with a very diminished fountain-like element; a portion of the pool would be replaced with a pathway, altering circulations patterns; and the treatment of the rest of the pool is ill-defined; it may be a pool, a scrim, a wet plaza or some combination thereof.  These issues are detailed in TCLF’s June 20, 2017 letter to Ms. Catherine Dewey, Chief of Resource Management, National Mall and Memorial Parks at the National Park Service, filed in advance of the June 28, 2017 Section 106 review of the proposed WWI Memorial.

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Pershing Park, soon after it was completed - Photo courtesy of M. Paul Friedberg and Partners

While the CFA did approve the design concept at their May 18, 2017 meeting, in a May 25, 2017 letter CFA Secretary Thomas E. Luebke, wrote the commissioners “found that the [May 18, 2017] presentation [of the “Restored Pool Concept”] lacked sufficient documentation about elements other than the sculpture, making it difficult to assess the overall experience, and they requested more detailed documentation for the next review.”  Mr. Luebke’s letter states: “For the proposed bas-relief wall, they advised further study to determine whether its length is appropriate.”  This buttresses remarks made by CFA commissioners on February 16, 2017 (noted above) concerning the scope and scale of the proposed bas-relief.

Shortly after the CFA approved the design concept, the WWI Centennial Commission posted a Q&A with the organization’s vice chair, Edwin Fountain, on its website in which Mr. Fountain states: “On Thursday [May 18, 2017] the CFA granted ‘concept approval’ for the proposed memorial, which means the CFA endorsed our proposal to establish a memorial at Pershing Park in the form of a monumental work of bronze bas-relief sculpture.”  The first part of that statement is correct, but the second part – “the CFA endorsed our proposal to establish a memorial at Pershing Park in the form of a monumental work of bronze bas-relief sculpture” – is not.

Process 82 (published in May 1989), the most comprehensive summary of Friedberg’s body of work (which features Pershing Park’s signature waterfall on its cover), notes that Pershing Park “was meant to be the activity center for the avenue.” William “Holly” Whyte, the celebrated urban theorist and critic, notes in his introductory essay: “Friedberg’s designs are full of overtly useful features. Pershing Park in Washington is a virtual compendium of them . . . The carrying capacity of the park is very high – even in summer. Washington’s dreadful Augusts might temper usage, to be sure, but the design does everything possible to make you think otherwise. What with the water, the plantings of the canopy of foliage overhead the place looks cool, even when it isn’t.” Whyte continues, “His water features, for example, are composed to draw people into it, to splash their hands in it, to dangle their feet.”

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Pershing Park, Washington, D.C. - Image courtesy of Oehme, van Sweden

The proposed design threatens the central water feature in Friedberg’s Pershing Park, which was designed to mitigate noise (from the surrounding vehicular traffic); have a cooling effect (from the mixing of air and water resulting during evaporation); and to serve as a place of respite in the center of the city, offering opportunities for recollection, contemplation and remembrance.  Collectively, the visual and physical barrier created by the insertion of a 65-foot-long wall; the corresponding loss of more than 50 feet of open access between the upper and lower plaza levels; the severed relationship between the southern and western staircases; the introduction of new hardscape into the pool basin (changing the pool’s shape and diminishing its surface area by more than 40%); and, the loss of the dynamic, animating qualities of water that are fundamental to the park’s feeling and integrity, constitute substantial adverse effects on the Friedberg design, which has been determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  Moreover, it destroys the integrity of the most important work of landscape architecture in the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site’s expanded period of significance, as outlined in the Cultural Landscape Inventory (May 10, 2016).  That period of significance spans 1976-1990, and encompasses a collection of modernist and postmodernist parks commissioned by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

As noted earlier, the WWI Centennial Commission has stated that their intent is “to create a memorial which (sic) shares a symbiotic relationship with the existing park.”  Several CFA Commissioners have expressed reservations about the design the WII Commission hopes will prevail - the 65-foot-long wall.  In an exchange on Saturday, June 17, Pershing Park's original landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg was very succinct: "What they keep [of the existing park] in no way relates to what they're imposing on it." 

How You Can Help

Contact the World War I Memorial Commissioners including the Chair, Colonel Robert J. Dalessandro, and Vice Chair, Edwin L. Fountain, and urge that any proposed changes to Pershing Park not have an adverse effect on the park’s signature design elements and features:

U.S. World War I Centennial Commission
701 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, #123
Washington, DC 20004

Contact Executive Director Marcel Acosta at the National Capital Planning Commission:

National Capital Planning Commission
401 9th Street, NW, North Lobby, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20004

Contact Thomas Leubke, Secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts:

U.S. Commission of Fine Arts
401 F Street, NW, Suite 312
Washington, DC 20001

Contact Catherine Dewey, Chief of Resource Management, National Mall and Memorial Parks at the National Park Service and urge for better maintenance of Pershing Park and the nation’s most important processional space:

National Mall and Memorial Parks
National Park Service
900 Ohio Drive, SW
Washington, DC 20024