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The Design of the World War II Memorial

By Michael E. Haskew
8/19/1999 • World War II Archives

The design concept for the long-awaited National World War II Memorial has been approved.

Millions of Americans served their country during World War II, and some 408,000 died. For more than a decade, discussion has revolved around how best to pay tribute to those members of the U.S. armed forces who helped achieve final victory during the war, and indeed to the entire generation of Americans who contributed to the war effort.

A few months ago, the design concept for the National World War II Memorial was approved by the National Capital Planning Commission. Previously, the design had been presented by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) and approved by the Commission of Fine Arts. Ground is expected to be broken by Veterans Day 2000 at a site on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., at the east end of the Reflecting Pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

The memorial’s design is the remarkable achievement of a team headed by renowned architect Friedrich St.Florian. It complements the Mall’s environmental features, including the Rainbow Pool and the numerous elm trees that will surround it. According to the ABMC, the purpose of the memorial is to “honor those who served in the armed forces of the United States during World War II and commemorate the participation of the nation in that war. All military veterans of the war, citizens on the ‘home front,’ the nation at large, and the high moral purpose and idealism that motivated the nation’s call to arms will be honored.”

The ABMC also refers to World War II as “the defining event of the 20th century in American history.” Few would argue that any other event of our time has had such far-reaching consequences for future generations. Now, nearly six decades after the end of the conflict, the memorial will finally take its place among the honored shrines in our nation’s capital.

In August 1996, a total of 404 design entries were reviewed by an evaluation board, and six finalists were chosen. The evaluation board and a design jury composed of distinguished American architects, landscape architects, architectural critics and World War II veterans judged the entries of the six finalists. Independently of one another, they each chose St.Florian’s entry. Due to concerns over the mass and scale of the memorial, its use of interior space and certain environmental concerns, however, some modifications were made.

“The modified design concept remains powerful in its purity, simplicity and serenity,” St.Florian commented. “I believe the evolution of this concept has been extremely successful.”

The shrine’s design includes an oval-shaped memorial plaza that conforms to the existing undulating landscape. Cascading stairs and ramps descend from the ceremonial entrance on 17th Street to the plaza level 7 feet below. Arched entries overlook the memorial plaza and the Rainbow Pool. Bronze laurel wreaths are suspended from the oculus of each arch. Together, the arches and wreaths are symbolic of valor and the ultimate victory. A framework of copper alloy and stone flanks the arches and symbolizes the unity and strength of the nation. The overall design allows for the retention of the current lines of sight from beneath the canopy of elms. A central ceremonial area will be situated at the memorial’s western apex. Inscriptions will pay tribute to the nation’s veterans, and a torch of freedom will blaze as a reminder of the price of freedom. The water elements at the north, south and west quadrants of the memorial will be visually attractive and help to lessen noise from passing traffic. Visitors will find the memorial plaza, with its blend of green space and paved walkways, an ideal area for quiet reflection.

Former Senator Robert Dole and Frederick W. Smith, chairman, president and chief executive officer of FDX Corporation, are spearheading a $100 million campaign to finance the construction with private funds. Dole remarked: “The American people have expressed their great desire and urgency for a World War II Memorial on the National Mall. More than 160 members of Congress and countless veterans organizations, corporations and individuals have demonstrated support for this long overdue tribute. Fred Smith and I are proud to join a campaign to honor the generation that sacrificed selflessly so that we might prosper today.”

As the former senator so aptly stated, the National World War II Memorial is long overdue. While the record of American sacrifice is remembered in such places as the numerous military cemeteries at home and abroad and the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, those who lived through the turbulent war years keep that record alive in their collective memory. NBC News recently published a statistic revealing that World War II veterans are now dying at a rate of more than 30,000 per month. When the last veteran is gone, this tangible tribute will remain as a testament to the bravery and resolve of the American armed forces, as well as to those who endured hardship and made tremendous sacrifices on the home front.

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