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Congressman abandons plan to ‘nationalize’ D.C. WWI memorial

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Pedestrians, veterans and members of the media walk around the grounds of the newly renovated District of Columbia WWI Memorial after a rededication ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 10, 2011. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/ The Washington Times)

A Texas congressman is no longer pursuing a plan to nationalize the District’s World War I memorial, a contentious proposal that had prompted D.C. officials to focus on downtown’s Pershing Park as a “fitting alternative” to the local monument’s prized site on the National Mall.

Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican, is committed to setting up a commission that recognizes the centennial of the Great War from 1914 to 1918 and redesignating a World War I memorial in Kansas City, Mo. — a pair of goals he outlined in legislation that is pending in a House committee, his spokeswoman, Shaylyn Hynes.

“We are no longer, however, pursuing a re-designation of the existing D.C. WWI Memorial,” she said in an email. She said the congressman still wants to establish a “fitting tribute” in the District, although it is unclear where it would be located.

“There are multiple options still being discussed at this point,” Ms. Hynes said. “The Congressman says it has taken 100 years to get this far, it shouldn’t take another 100 years to get it done.”

The D.C. Council introduced a nonbinding resolution on Tuesday to promote Pershing Park as an appropriate site for a national World War I Memorial instead of altering the identity of the District of Columbia World War I Memorial, located in a shaded area of West Potomac Park between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

The tree-lined park at Pennsylvania Avenue and 14 Street Northwest, is named for General John J. Pershing, a distinguished American officer who led crucial campaigns along the Western Front against the German army during World War I. Situated about a block from the White House, it features a duck pond surrounded by steps and small tables that attract tourists and workers looking for a midday respite.

The council’s measure speaks to lingering debate over how to memorialize all Americans who served and died in the first world war, since the Mall — a stretch of federal parkland that attracts heavy foot traffic — is dotted with iconic memorials to other overseas conflicts of the 20th century.

A federal law passed in 2003 prohibits the construction of new memorials, ostensibly leaving the District’s site as the only vehicle for a national World War I memorial on the Mall.

But D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting member of Congress, had vehemently objected to Mr. Poe’s bill and companion legislation in the Senate that would rename the site as the “District of Columbia and National World War I Memorial.”

Ms. Hynes said Mr. Poe is working with Ms. Norton and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, Missouri Democrat, on a “mutually agreeable path forward.”

“All members involved are committed to ensuring a fitting memorial is established to honor all World War I veterans,” she said. “We are working through a number of possibilities to make sure that happens but at this point it is too early to say what the final outcome will be.”

Ms. Norton has publicly supported Pershing Park as an appropriate site for a national memorial.

The council’s resolution notes the park contains a “handsome sculpture” of Pershing, which is joined by detailed maps and descriptions of military campaigns during the conflict in Europe. It says the park could be “modestly improved” to include a sculpture of personnel in various branches of military service and other “interpretive elements.”

Proponents of the federal legislation to establish a national memorial say it is better to have a memorial at Pershing Park than none at all, but they still prefer a site on the Mall.

Edwin Fountain, a director at the National World War I Foundation, said the park “would be an awful lot of work to make a fitting memorial.”

“The whole site would need to be redone,” he said. He also said it might be difficult to access the park, which sits near a busy intersection adjacent to the Willard InterContinental Hotel.

He said the proposal at the Mall would not have altered the existing D.C memorial and, if anything, the national designation would have elevated the site and attracted more visitors.

In January, an official for the National Capital Region of the Park Service told members of Congress that the 2003 ban on new structures at the Mall may also prevent any changes to the city’s memorial.

Mr. Fountain said he is not keen on seeing Congress make exceptions to the law, but an allowance to erect a new World War I memorial “would be a fitting one.”

The D.C. memorial was dedicated by President Hoover in 1931 to honor the 26,000 city residents who fought in World War I and the 499 who died.

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About the Author

Tom Howell Jr.

Tom Howell Jr. covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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