Pershing Park Update


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By Charles A. Birnbaum, president & CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation
The legacy of M. Paul Friedberg’s modernist and postmodernist works of landscape architecture is finite and delicate. Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis, MN, the genesis of Friedberg’s “park plaza” typology, narrowly avoided demolition thanks to a sustained campaign from 2011 to 2013 to save it that drew a national audience (an effort recognized with Docomomo US’ first-ever Advocacy Award of Excellence in 2014 for The Cultural Landscape Foundation, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, and Docomomo US/Minnesota).

And in January 2013, the project was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the first Friedberg project so designated. Sadly, one of his most significant projects – Riis Playground on New York City’s Lower East Side – was demolished more than a decade earlier -- with no discourse or debate.

1980s Pershing Park, Washington, DC. Photograph © Oehme, van Sweden, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Today, another Friedberg design, Pershing Park in Washington, D.C. is slated to be the location of a national World War I Memorial.  The park, which opened in 1981, is significant as a modernist work, but it also has postmodernist elements; and, there is a subsequent planting plan by the landscape architects Oehme, van Sweden. Pershing Park, which is located on Pennsylvania Avenue two blocks from the White House, is the only project on which all these landscape architects worked. 
In 2015 an open competition was held that yielded some 360 designs, which were winnowed late in the year to five finalists. On January 26, 2016, the World War I Centennial Commission announced that The Weight of Sacrifice, by architect Joe Weishaar & sculptor Sabin Howard, was selected from among five finalists as the winning design. Should the proposal be executed, it would result in the demolition of Pershing Park, which the National Park Service (NPS) has determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The decision comes despite reservations and concerns registered by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), and the District of Columbia State Historic Preservation Office (DCSHPO), all of which must approve the project. Days before the announcement, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott wrote: “All five of the [finalist] designs obliterate the Friedberg park, rather than building on it,” adding that, “None of the proposals, selected in July from 360 entries, rises to a standard the commission should champion.”
A week before the final decision, Commission spokesperson Chris Isleib issued a pre-emptive press announcement about the design competition process stating: “The five design teams consulted with representatives from the Commission, the National Park Service, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission, and other stakeholders to develop and refine their design concepts. The designs must must (sic) meet a number of criteria related to design merit, site considerations, environmental impact, historical (sic) preservation, sustainability, and cost. The designers submitted their final concepts in December 2015.”

1980s Pershing Park, Washington, DC. Photograph © Oehme, van Sweden, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

2015 Pershing Park, Washington, DC. Photograph © The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

As I said in a statement issued after the announcement of the winner, the World War I Centennial Commission did meet with stakeholders, and they also knew that Pershing Park would likely be eligible to the National Register, which would restrict the impact on the park, but they never really listened. Instead, they opted for conflict over collaboration.
It’s notable that despite the World War I Centennial Commission's near unanimous approval of the design, several of its members seemed underwhelmed by the choice. During a conference call announcing the decision, Commissioner Thomas Moe, from Ohio, the sole vote against the winning design, panned it as “unremarkable.” Even Edwin Fountain, the commission’s vice chair and the public face of the memorial project, seemed less than satisfied telling theWashington Post’s Peggy McGlone: “It’s not going to be the grand statement we might have wanted.”
As noted above, the proposed memorial will require approvals from numerous agencies and the timeline for that is unknown. The WWI Centennial Commission wants the project built in time for the 100th anniversary of the war’s end, in 2018. That would seem ambitious – the memorial for President Eisenhower has taken more than fourteen years to get approved, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial took more than twenty years. 

1980s Pershing Park, Washington, DC. Photograph © Oehme, van Sweden, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

2015 Pershing Park, Washington, DC. Photograph © The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Another major hurdle is the position the Commission has consistently staked out. Despite ecumenical-sounding claims during the final selection process that “all options are on the table,” from the restoration of Pershing Park to outright demolition, the process has been strongly bias against the existing park. Not only did the competition’s design guidelines encourage an entirely new design, commission officials, including Roger Lewis, an advisor to the design competition, and Edwin Fountain have consistently denigrated the Friedberg design in public presentations and media interviews. In a meeting with members of the CFA, DCSHPO, NPS and others on December 16, 2015, Mr. Fountain stated that, “it almost seemed an affront to preserve the bones of the Friedberg design” and stated that it was not the Centennial Commission’s job to “restore the park.” At one point he declared that if a preservation approach is required, “speaking personally...we’ll have to decide if we move forward.”
Also significant is the January 4, 2016, letter from the National Park Service (NPS) to the competition jury that appears to render the winning design effectively invalid. The letter from Gay Vietzke, the superintendent of the National Mall and memorial parks, stated: “Although the Determination of Eligibility (DOE) for the World War I Memorial (Pershing Park) has not yet been completed, the National Park Service has identified the World War I Memorial (Pershing Park) as being eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places based on the finding of the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site Cultural Landscape Inventory (CLI).” This should have come as no surprise—NPS official Peter May, an adviser to the design competition, said it was assumed more than a year ago that Pershing Park would be determined eligible. The letter expressed NPS’s desire that any new design would “enhance the existing park to accommodate a new memorial, while retaining the signature elements of the park.” Because Pershing Park is eligible, “any adverse impacts [on the park] will require minimization and/or mitigation to be determined in consultation with the SHPO [State Historic Preservation Office] and other Consulting Parties.” The letter says, “The World War I Memorial (Pershing Park) exemplifies signature elements of Modernist landscape design that are characterized by simple designs, strong geometric lines, rectilinear forms, and largely open plans.”  
The Commission has put itself in a very difficult position by snubbing the agencies that will be required to approve the new design and by repeatedly rendering their distaste for the Friedberg-designed Pershing Park. Nevertheless, in a statement announcing the decision, the Commission reiterated its commitment to work with stakeholders. Hopefully the process will be more collaborative than it has been thus far.

2012 Pershing Park, Washington, DC. Photograph © The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

2015 Pershing Park, Washington, DC. Photograph © The Cultural Landscape Foundation

To prevent the demolition of Pershing Park, please contact the following:

World War I Memorial Commissioners including the Chair, Colonel Robert J. Dalessandro, and Vice Chair, Edwin L. Fountain
U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, 701 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, #123, Washington, DC 20004

Executive Director Marcel Acosta at the National Capital Planning Commission:
National Capital Planning Commission, 401 9th Street, NW, North Lobby, Suite 500 , Washington, DC 20004

Thomas Luebke, Secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts:
U.S. Commission of Fine Arts , 401 F Street, NW, Suite 312, Washington, DC 20001