National World War I Memorial designed by Arkansas native still on slow track

Ground broken, but hurdles remain

Posted: November 10, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated: November 10, 2017 at 3:14 a.m.

Fayetteville native Joseph Weishaar stands at the site Thursday in Washington where ground was broken for the National World War I Memorial. Weishaar is lead designer for the still-developing plan.

WASHINGTON -- Political and military leaders gathered Thursday to break ground on a new National World War I Memorial, a project that has been slowed by regulatory hurdles, fundraising challenges and landscape architecture critics.

Turning soft soil with shiny commemorative shovels took a few seconds; it will be a while longer before real construction begins.

Tens of millions of dollars must still be raised. Government agencies must still weigh in.

The centerpiece of the memorial -- a 65-foot-long, 11-foot-high bas-relief sculpture -- remains in the planning stages.

A 9-foot-long bronze scale model -- called a maquette -- of the centerpiece must still be prepared.

Building the full-size sculpture, once the artwork is approved, may take five years or more, according to Sabin Howard, the New York City artist who will design it and guide it to completion.

The memorial's lead designer, Fayetteville native Joseph Weishaar, was selected in 2016 after an international competition. He was 25 years old at the time -- just a couple of years removed from his studies at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's Fay Jones School of Architecture.

Before entering the competition, he had never visited the District of Columbia. Now he lives in Washington, working to come up with a plan that will satisfy three agencies -- the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Park Service and the National Capital Planning Commission.

On Thursday, Weishaar was front and center, flanked during the ceremony by U.S. Army Chief of Staff Mark A. Milley and Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander in Chief Keith Harman.

During his speech, Weishaar spoke with enthusiasm about the monument site.

"The Mall may have the equivalent of Vatican Square, but we have the Sistine Chapel," he told the crowd.

The nation built reminders of other 20th-century conflicts within sight of the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument.

But the World War I memorial will face what some have called "America's Main Street," the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue that runs between Capitol Hill and the White House.

The monument is to stand in Pershing Park, a spot named after the man who commanded the U.S. troops in WWI -- General of the Armies John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing.

Originally, Weishaar's design called for sweeping changes to the 1.76-acre space, which sits a quarter-mile or less from the presidential mansion.

Plans for radical changes have faded away, however, since the existing park was declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Supporters of the existing park design, by M. Paul Friedberg, have done all they can to preserve the New York landscape architect's original vision.

The urban park, created in 1981, had suffered from years of neglect. Its fountain no longer functions, and its ice-skating rink has been abandoned.

The memorial's advocates are promising to restore the park and keep most of its major elements.

In May, the memorial's backers obtained concept approval from the Commission of Fine Arts. But the details, large and small, must still be worked out.

"We've got to continue the design work," said Edwin Fountain, vice chairman of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission. "The Commission of Fine Arts has approved the main elements of it but there's a lot of detail and finish still to be provided. ... Then we will have to go back before the agencies for approval on those aspects."

There's also fundraising to complete.

"[It's] in the ballpark, give or take, of about $40 million, and we've raised at least $10 [million] of that already so we're making good progress," he said.

Friedberg's vision will be respected, Fountain said.

"I'd say we're preserving about 95 percent of the existing park design, with some tweaks here and there," he said.

The ice-skating kiosk will be removed. A giant flagpole will be added. The main addition will be the bronze wall, which will depict dozens of soldiers, their families and fellow citizens who served on the home front, Weishaar said.

Milley, the Army chief of staff, said America needs a reminder of the calamitous Great War, as it was called.

"In a period of only six weeks, the kings and the queens and the czars and the kaisers and the presidents and the prime ministers of Europe in sequence made a series of horrific decisions that ... resulted four years later in an utter catastrophe in which 38 million people died," he said. "It was a war that ripped apart five empires."

Robert Vogel, regional director of the National Park Service's National Capital Region, said his agency is "the keeper of the American legacy in all its sweep and drama."

"We look forward to the dedication of the World War I Memorial and assuming the very solemn responsibility as its caretakers," he said. "I promise you that we will be here every day of every year watching over this place, to keep it and protect it, to pass its story on to future generations of Americans."

Military cadets hold ceremonial shovels Thursday at groundbreaking ceremonies for the National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington.

Metro on 11/10/2017