Washington DC Is Running Out of Room for Memorials and Monuments

Roundup: Talking About History

Steven Knipp, in the South China Morning Post (May 6, 2004):

All nations are proud of their triumphs. But few countries have both the space and the money to build so many monuments to their leaders, and their accomplishments, as do the Americans. From the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour, to Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the American landscape is awash with monuments and memorials, statues and shrines, to the great and the good.

But nowhere has this habit become more ingrained than in Washington. On May 29, Memorial Day, America's newest shine will be officially unveiled. Built over three years by 500 workers at a cost of US$ 175 million, the circular tribute in stone known as the World War II Memorial is situated on the city's 6km-long National Mall - midway between the towering Washington Monument and the majestic Lincoln Memorial.

Washington's latest memorial honours the 16 million Americans who served in the second world war, including the 400,000 who died on the battlefields of Europe and Asia. While few Americans question the appropriateness of this memorial, or its elegance (the design was selected from among 400 entries), its location in the heart of the Mall was harshly criticised by urban planners for disrupting the Mall's large open space, which has historically been used for political gatherings, such as the 250,000 people who listened to Martin Luther King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. For that reason, the memorial's original size was scaled back.

But even American historians are now saying enough is enough. They fear that one of the world's most beautiful capitals will soon begin to look like a cluttered national cellar.

Just 100 metres from the new memorial is the Korean War Memorial. And opposite that is the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. Designed by Chinese-American Maya Lin, The Wall (as it's known today) is the single most visited site in Washington. But at its 1982 dedication many felt its design was too abstract. So, two years later, additional funds were raised to erect a traditional bronze battlefield statue known as the Three Servicemen.

Within a decade, though, still more demands were made, this time for a Vietnam Women's Memorial, honouring nurses who served in Saigon. Thus, today there are three memorials - all dedicated to the same war, all within 50 metres of each other.

Set slightly back from the Mall is the sprawling FDR Memorial. Erected in 1997 (despite an explicit request from president Franklin Delano Roosevelt that none be built for him), this shrine boasts not one statue but four - two of the president, one of his wife, and one of his beloved dog, Fala. The president's second statue, showing Roosevelt in his wheelchair, was added when disabled Americans protested that the first statue hid from view the fact that the president had been disabled by polio.

Off the south end of the Mall is the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, dedicated by president George Bush Snr. Inscribed on its walls are the names of nearly 17,000 police officers killed since 1792, including those who died in car accidents. Each May, hundreds more names are added.

But it's not just the National Mall that's getting cramped. Elsewhere in the marble-mobbed metropolis are scores of bronze horsemen honouring forgotten civil war figures. There are stone figures, too, honouring senators, governors, and labour leaders. There are memorials to the Japanese-Americans illegally imprisoned during the second world war. There are statues of Christopher Columbus and of the Boy Scouts, and Moses and yes, Confucius.

On the grounds of the National Academy of Science sits the black granite figure of German-born, naturalised American Albert Einstein. On Constitution Avenue stands a statue of Nathan Hale: the revolutionary war patriot, whom the British hung as a spy, looks like he's directing traffic.

Many of the marble works wedged into Washington aren't even remotely related to America. Opposite the Indian embassy we find a bespectacled statue of Mahatma Gandhi, complete with walking cane. On the grounds of George Washington University stands Russia's poet Alexander Pushkin. In Washington's small riverside boat basin a sculpture of an angel, his arms outstretched to heaven, venerates those lost on the Titanic. Near the White House stands a 10 -metre-high statue of Simon Bolivar, founder of Bolivia, the third-largest supplier of cocaine to America.

On Florida Avenue we find Joan of Arc, Washington's only equestrian statue with a female rider. On Massachusetts Avenue stands a stony Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation - which took place three centuries before America existed.

The interior of Washington's enormous Union Station is guarded by dozens of Roman centurions. They were commissioned in 1907. But when the statues were set in place high over the rail station's main hall, the city's Fine Arts Commission were nail-bitingly distraught to discover the boys from Rome were buck naked below their tunics - historically accurate, yes, but not acceptable to turn-of-the-century Washingtonians. Carefully placed shields were subsequently added, lending privacy from prying upward-looking eyes.

Alas, Washington's near-mania for memorials is not restricted to only the great and the good, nor just the notable and noble. All too often, the merely ordinary and sometimes even the absurd are flattered in marble and metal.

In Indiana Plaza stands the Cogswell Temperance Fountain, named after Henry D. Cogswell, an eccentric San Francisco dentist who made a fortune from mining stocks in the 1880s. In trendy Dupont Circle there's a plaque honouring Sonny Bono, of the 1960s pop duo Sonny & Cher, who died not on the battlefield but in a freak skiing accident.

The decision to allow monuments, where to place them, and how large to make them, is not decided willy-nilly. An organisation called the National Capital Planning Commission is tasked with the specific job of "protecting and preserving the integrity of the Mall", in the words of its chairman, John Cogbill III.

The trouble is, every time a new group asks to put up a monument to some one or some event, political pressure is brought to bear, and exceptions are made. Thus, the US Air Force is demanding a memorial of its own, because the Army, Navy and Marine Corps all have theirs. The Pentagon wants its own memorial for September 11. And America's disabled veterans are seeking final approval for a US$ 60 million memorial of their own.

What about the Native Americans, you ask? They have an entire new museum of their own, which opens in a matter of months - yes, on the Mall.

But how much longer before the Eskimos elbow their way into Washington? And maybe, just maybe, there's enough room to shoe-horn in something nice ... for the Hawaiians? No doubt, somewhere in Honolulu, an acclaimed architect is already sketching his design for a giant stone surfboard, to be mounted on an immense bronze wave.

But at this rate, the only space left in Washington to place such a design will be across Abraham Lincoln's lap.

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