WASHINGTON — Work began Thursday, ceremonially at least, on the new national World War I memorial, which will honor the 4.7 million Americans who served in one of history’s bloodiest conflicts.
Men in hard hats plucked up a single piece of pink granite from Pershing Park, the 1.76-acre site in Washington where the tribute will eventually stand.
The National Park Service issued the construction permit earlier this week, the final obstacle in the years-long process.
The lead memorial designer, Fayetteville native Joseph Weishaar, donned a hard hat for Thursday’s ceremony. He was joined by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen, former Navy Secretary John Warner and other dignitaries.
More strenuous labor will get underway soon, Weishaar said.
The park’s old ice-skating-rink infrastructure must be dug up and hauled away. It will be replaced with a commemorative fountain. A kiosk will be demolished, freeing up space for a belvedere.
Work on a 58-foot-long bass relief sculpture commemorating the conflict is already underway. The sculptor, Sabin Howard, is expected to complete his bronze artwork by 2024.
The goal is to complete park construction by Nov. 11, the 102nd anniversary of the armistice. The sculpture will be installed at a later date.
Officials have raised roughly $44 million of the $50 million needed for the overall project.
Terry Hamby, the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission chairman, praised Weishaar’s work on the project thus far.
“Joe is going to have one of the most impressive memorials in Washington, D.C.,” Hamby said. “It is really, really remarkable.”
Warner, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also expressed satisfaction with the design.
“We’ve got to look at it in its final setting before we render judgment, but it appears to me it’s going to catch the character of the people of our nation and what our forefathers went through, including my father, who was in three of the last major engagements of the war. I’m proud to have been a very minute part of this whole thing,” he said.
Warner’s father was one of the 204,000 U.S. servicemen wounded in the conflict. More than 116,000 Americans died.
“America should never go to bed at night without being grateful to all those who put forth a measure of sacrifice,” Warner said. “Some gave their lives. Others their limbs. And the rest of us have got to remember those people for what they did.”
Millions of people died in World War I, which began after the June 28, 1914, assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
The conflict, which lasted more than four years, altered world maps, erased empires and destroyed a generation of men.
The United States entered the war in April 1917, enabling England, France and their allies to finally defeat the nations aligned with Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The peace that followed was fleeting. The postwar maps were eventually redrawn. The sacrifices and the suffering were repeated.
“It’s really the war that the world forgot. We don’t remember them,” Weishaar said Thursday. “With this memorial, hopefully we can restart the conversation.”
The new World War I memorial will stand along Pennsylvania Avenue, roughly a quarter-mile from the White House.
The sculpture, titled A Soldier’s Journey, begins with service members leaving for war, highlights their trials overseas and ends with their return home.
While monuments to other 20th century conflicts — Vietnam, Korea and World War II — are already in place, the U.S. capital, until now, hasn’t had a similar tribute for those who served in the Great War.
“In a way, it’s stunning that we’ve never done this,” Mullen said. “We lost 116,000 troops in 18 months. … Remembering them is really, really important and this memorial is going to do that.”
The memorial design “captures that era,” he added.
Weishaar, a graduate of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville’s Fay Jones School of Architecture, has been focusing on the project for the past four years,
He moved to Washington after winning the World War I commission’s international design competition in January 2016.
He was just 25 years old at the time.
Partnering with Howard, his design concept was called “The Weight of Sacrifice” and it called for sweeping changes at the memorial site.
The plans had to be scaled back, however, after protests from preservationists and a determination by the National Park Service that the existing park was eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
Instead of the original plan to raze much of Pershing Park and start over, the new concept keeps much of the old park’s original design.
In order to receive approval for the design, the sculpture was scaled back from 81 feet to 58 feet.
Pershing Park, named after the man who led U.S. troops to victory in the war, features a statue of Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing.
The new design incorporates the statue, which towers above the park’s southeast corner.
It adds Howard’s sculpture.
Set atop a new peace fountain, just above its cascading waters, the art is the centerpiece of the final design.
A tribute to the fallen by Archibald MacLeish, a World War I veteran and poet, will be carved in carnelian granite: “We leave you our deaths: give them their meaning: give them an end to the war and a true peace: give them a victory that ends the war and a peace afterwards: give them their meaning. We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.”
After three years of hard work, the Commission of Fine Arts signed off on the project in September. The National Capital Planning Commission gave its blessing in October.
Dan Dayton, executive director of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, credited Weishaar with helping to make the project a success.
“He’s been superb. Not only a brilliant designer, a brilliant architect. … He’s also a spokesman for us. He’s a fundraiser for us. He’s a cheerleader for us. [He] could not be better,” Dayton said.
Metro on 12/13/2019