Updated: 2 days ago
There are memorials in DC, let me share my thoughts on a few of them.
Taras Shevchenko Memorial
When I lived in the District, this statue of the "Bard of Ukraine" held a special place for my wife and me, due to our admiration of Shevchenko's fight for Ukrainian independence, his brilliant poetry, but mostly because it was directly across the street from an establishment that served over 400 types of beer. Serving beer from Argentina to Zimbabwe, the Brickskeller was a rabbit warren of a bar that was as cozy as it was authentic. It has subsequently changed its name to the slightly less authentic "Bier Baron".
• So getting back to the statue. At 14 feet high it's truly larger than life, with Shevchenko using his left hand to draw back his long suit coat, gesturing with his right hand, while seemingly walking off the pedestal. It's all very dramatic, as any good statue should be.
• According to the Toledo Blade, construction was delayed as the Interior Department complained to Congress that Washington was fast becoming a forest of statuary and if something wasn't done would run out of room for pedestals, a statutory statuary ceiling needed to be established. While I agree with the Interior Department, apparently Congress didn't, as this memorial, as well as numerous others, have since been dedicated.
Entertainer - Entrepreneur - Statesmen - Friend
Anybody come to mind when you hear these words that are inscribed on this memorial? It's located on a modest triangle of land in Northwest, DC., and to me is a model of a less is more, and therefore more humble approach to memorialization. Because there is no pedestal or even statue there is more green space for you to enjoy while you read your book and contemplate how the beat goes on. Still don't know who this man is? Well, click here, babe.
The Emancipation Memorial
I had lived in the District for over 20 years and had never visited this memorial, that has been in the news of late. It is the one with Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation in hand standing over a recently freed slave with broken shackles. I had seen a photo years ago and must admit thought it a little strange and possibly a little offensive though financed by former slaves and dedicated by Frederick Douglas, it has been controversial since it was first erected in 1876. It's located in Lincoln Park and due to the George Floyd protest, is surrounded by a high fence and Jersey barriers, to protect it from "protesters". I can understand why many do not like the composition of this memorial, which I think will eventually lead to it's re-location. It is rightly criticized for its paternalism, but it is one of the most artistic memorials in the District. Lincoln looks quite contemplative and the freed slave, angry and determined. Originally facing west towards the Capitol, the memorial was re-oriented east in 1974 to face the newly erected Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial.
• The Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial is dedicated to the educator and activist. It was sculpted by Robert Berks using the "Play-Doh" technique. He had used this technique to better effect when he sculpted the bust of JFK at the Kennedy Center and the Albert Einstein Memorial. Unfortunately, this particular statue is just lumpy and awkward.
• The statues of Lincoln and Bethune McLeod face each other, an interesting juxtaposition of new vs old. Unfortunately the new just doesn't work.
The WWII Memorial
The idea for a WWII memorial was only first conceived in 1987, with legislation signed in 1993. It then took another eleven years before it was completed. The urgency to complete prior to the last WWII veteran's death, unfortunately did not help the creative process, as the memorial doesn't fill me with awe, just with questions:
• Why was it built on the National Mall? Since the National Mall was first envisioned by L'Enfant, it has slowly but surely developed into a broad open space, with, over the years, a number of structures and buildings being purposely removed³. Putting the WWII Memorial in between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial, just clogs up the Mall, needlessly eliminating some beautiful green-space.
• Why does the memorial have such an odd architectural style? With a stone column for every state, the architecture may appear to have a Greco-Roman feel, but upon closer inspection the lack of decor and details reminds me of Nazi architecture (initially I would have called it Stalinist, but calling it Nazi, is perhaps more accurate and shocking). It's all a little ominous and cold, which personally I don't mind, but just not for this installation.
• Why is there a column for every state? If this were the memorial for the War of the Rebellion (for you southern sympathizers, that means The Civil War), then a column for every state would make perfect sense, but not for a war between the U.S. and Japan & Germany (& Italy, etc.). At some point in the design process, due to protests, columns for U.S. territories were added. I do not want to denigrate the contribution of the Virgin Islands, but does it really need to have it's own column? Also the state columns are arranged in the order they joined the Union, which leads to another question. Who cares?
• Why is there an arch on either side, bearing the inscriptions "Atlantic" and "Pacific"? As a former sailor I like this idea, as to the Navy, WWII could easily be broken down by oceans. But to former soldiers who fought in Germany or Southeast Asia, this makes little sense. WWII is generally and best, divided into "Europe" and "Pacific".
• Why are some campaigns (Central Europe?) and battles (Attu, Tunisia) specifically inscribed, but others are not (Aachen, Monte Cassino)? I have no idea.
• Why is there a fountain and reflecting pool? Ok, I get this one. Since it's located on the Mall, the designer wanted to continue the reflecting pool motif and allow for visitors to reflect on the courage, sacrifice and devotion of those who died. Unfortunately, a significant number of these visitors lack class and can only "reflect" while bathing their feet.
- Oh yeah, please don't toss your coins in the fountain or the reflecting pool, it's a memorial not a wishing well.
• Why is there a wall of 4,048 gold stars? Each of the stars represents 100 service personal who died. Unfortunately a wall of gold stars does not truly convey the magnitude of the dead. Gold Star Service Banners were displayed in the windows of homes of service members who died during the War. I think the designers forced this imaginary into the memorial.
• Why does the memorial include a bronze relief of Soviet soldiers? On either side of the broad walkway leading to the memorial, are 24 bronze reliefs depicting various images of WWII, one of which is the "Russians Meet Americans at the Elbe", which portrays a famous photo of members of the U.S. 69th Division shaking hands with those of the Soviet 58th Guards when they met at the Elbe River in Germany on April 25 1945. So the only reference to any of the Allies, many of whom started fighting Hitler two years prior to the U.S. is of Soviets?!
> The base relief has the Soviets on the left and the Americans on the right, which is opposite of how they appear in the photo and how most Americans visualize a map of Europe. Also the base relief has bowdlerized the actual event, by removing cigarettes from the G.I.s mouths. Also, a female Soviet soldier has perplexingly been added.
Note: Two "Kilroy was here"⁴ graffiti have been etched into hidden locations around the memorial. Try and locate at least one, as they are the most authentic part.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Since Americans have been building memorials, the standard has been a structure resembling a Greek temple, a statue on a pedestal or combination of the two. I think this started to change in the early 80s with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (though the design was still so controversial, a statue on a small pedestal had to be added two years later), with subsequent memorials like the second Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial being "deconstructed" (they all have statues and/or structures, but not arranged in the standard format). Sometime they work (Korean War), sometimes they don't (FDR) and sometimes they are in between (MLK Jr.).
Instead of reviewing some of this memorial's finer points, the architecture (a mash-up), the quotes (all 14) or the color of his statue (white). I'm going to try and sum it all up in two bullets:
• I remember when I first saw a photograph of the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue that is at the center of this memorial, I remember specifically thinking "he has Asian eyes". Now did I think this before I read that the sculpture was sculpted by a sculptor named Lei Yixin? I can't remember, but there is just something wrong with them. Also, I do not agree with those that thought a black sculptor should have been selected or even that he should have been American, but to select a communist that also sculpted a celebratory stature of Mao Zedong!⁵ You gotta be shittin' me! Unbelievable!
• The King family run Intellectual Properties Management Inc. was paid almost a million dollars for the use of King's words and image. You gotta be shittin' me! Unbelievable!
Thoughts In Memoriam
Memorials need to be built to last. Presumably my memorial will be there forever, so I want it designed and built taking that into account. In the last three years I've toured more memorials than most, and unfortunately more than a few are in a state of disrepair, a state of repair or just a sad state.
I'm sure that there are many who can better speak to how to properly design and build a long lasting memorial. As an engineer, I can knowledgeably comment on one aspect where some memorials fall short: simplicity. Human nature pushes memorial designers, builders and selection committees to create memorials that are more beautiful, unique and well, more memorable than the last one. I wonder if they really think about what it all will look like in 20 years. There are few things sadder than a reflection pool that is empty and filled with trash (unless it is filled with an inch of fetid water), as the water pump will break, the liner will leak and the filter will clog. Many of the memorials that I visited had a water feature that was out of commission: the Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon, the U.S. Navy Memorial and the Taras Shevchenko Memorial. Also a few memorials have a bell component, which can also be problematic: When I visited the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II the integral bell and the water feature were both out of commission.
Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details which while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.
¹ Prometheus represents human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching. The lone genius whose efforts improve human existence.
² Church of the Pilgrims was the location of the first wedding in the Wedding Crashers.
³ In 1918 the Main Navy" and "Munitions Building along nearly a third of a mile of the south side of Constitution Avenue (then known as B Street), from 17th Street NW to 21st Street NW was constructed. Although the Navy intended the buildings to provide temporary quarters for the United States military during World War I, the reinforced concrete structures were only finally removed in 1970.
⁴ "Kilroy was here" is American graffiti that became popular during World War II. Its origin is unknown, but the phrase and the distinctive accompanying doodle became associated with G.I.s in the 1940s: a bald-headed man (sometimes depicted as having a few hairs) with a prominent nose peeking over a wall with his fingers clutching the wall.
⁵ In regards to the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., it gets even better, as it is made of Chinese granite and was assembled on the National Mall by Chinese workers.
⁶ Prior to Franklin Roosevelt's death he asked that his memorial consist of a block about the size of his desk and placed in the center of a green plot of land in front of the Archives Building. And in 1965, that is exactly how the original Franklin Roosevelt Memorial was constructed. Apparently this was too modest and a much larger and more convoluted memorial was built in 1997, adjacent to the Tidal Basin.