Who will own the D.C. War Memorial?
- The D.C. War Memorial today. (Photo: Joshua Yospyn)
On Nov. 11, 1931, President Herbert Hoover stood in a quiet grove in West Potomac Park in front of a Doric-columned temple cut from white Vermont marble. Below his podium, Gen. John J. Pershing sat with impeccable posture, near two former first ladies, Edith Wilson and Helen Taft, as 77-year-old march king John Philip Sousa led the Marine Band in “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
In a solemn, simple ceremony at 11 a.m., 13 years to the minute after the armistice ending World War I went into effect, Hoover dedicated the pristine District of Columbia War Memorial to more than 26,000 Washington residents who fought in the Great War and to 499 District men and women who never returned home.
“We gather here today to dedicate a new shrine to those residents of the District of Columbia who served in the World War,” Hoover told a crowd of thousands that filled the stands and spilled into the surrounding park. “This temple will recall for all time their services and sacrifices.”
Nearly eight decades later, two pieces of legislation currently in Congress may compromise that intention.
The D.C. War Memorial was erected when cities and towns memorialized veterans locally. Times have changed: Now there are three national war memorials on the Mall honoring all those who fought in Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. To some, the absence of a national World War I memorial is an offensive chasm in the narrative.
Earlier this year, Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, reintroduced legislation that, among other things, rededicates the D.C. War Memorial as a national memorial, paying tribute not only to District veterans but to all Americans who served in the Great War. The local memorial would be renamed the “District of Columbia and National World War I Memorial.” Both bills have been referred to subcommittee.
How you feel about this proposal depends on your taste in symbolic problems.
Supporters say a national designation would keep the tribute physically close to the other three national war memorials, since it’s located only steps away, and draw more foot traffic to a site that’s been overlooked by tourists for years. Others think turning a local memorial into a national one is yet another assault on the District’s sovereignty. To them, the memorial also signifies the responsibilities citizens of the District bear in the absence of full political rights. D.C. residents fought in the Great War, but they didn’t vote for it.
“[T] his is a memorial that is of, by, and for the District, not the country,” Tom Bridge wrote in a We Love DC post about the proposal. “Here is Congress that doesn’t want to give us voting rights that we deserve, and now they want to share, without our permission, our memorial,” says Joe Grano, president of the Rhodes Tavern-D.C. Heritage Society and a licensed D.C. tour guide. “The symbolism of that just astounds me. It’s like we don’t exist.”
Like a lot of things having to do with the District, it’s difficult to find the lines between local and national concerns. The National Park Service maintains the memorial; the D.C. Parks and Recreation Department spends nothing on it.
But there are echoes of Grano’s and Bridge’s sentiment deep in the memorial’s history. Frank B. Noyes, a scion of the family that owned the Washington Evening Star, led the campaign to raise funds from District residents to get it built, and his older brother Theodore was a well-known advocate for a Constitutional amendment to give D.C. voting representation.
Edwin Fountain is the former president of the D.C. Preservation League, which placed the memorial on its Endangered List in 2006 after years of neglect left it dilapidated, and is founding director of the World War I Memorial Foundation, an organization created to advocate and raise funds for the D.C. War Memorial’s restoration and rededication (restoration ended up happening separately through $10.6 million in stimulus money, according to National Park Service spokesperson Bill Line, and is slated to finish in early 2012). Fountain’s organization worked to secure the legislation currently in Congress.
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