Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A New Generation of DC Memorials

Washington DC felt an earthquake today and we missed it? A shaking but non-deadly sort of earthquake? Dang. I would have like to have been there for that.

Ah, well. One reason to visit DC, for me anyway, was to see its "new" memorials, though some of them aren't that new anymore, since it's been more than 16 years since my last visit. Still, a lot has happened in those recent years, such as the transformation of the Rainbow Pool -- I don't remember that name, but I do remember walking past it, there between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial -- into the National World War II Memorial, dedicated in 2004.

I'm not lacking in admiration for the critical part the United States played in defeating fascism, nor for the men and women who fought for that purpose, but I wasn't all together taken with the memorial. It's a pleasant plaza with a fine water feature, but the ring of columns seemed a little odd. They number 56, each with a 1945 U.S. state or territory name inscribed on it. Could be that's supposed to evoke the idea that soldiers from every part of the nation fought, but why is that fact so overwhelmingly emphasized? Seldom has the United States been so united as during World War II. The war required, and got, the blood and treasure of one nation, not a loose collective of 56 entities.

Maybe I was underwhelmed because I'd seen a different World War II memorial recently that I liked very much, namely the one at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Ill. Compared to the memorial in Washington, the Springfield one is simple, but it still conveys the worldwide scope of the war by naming the major battles in which Americans participated and pinpointing them on a globe. The Illinois memorial encapsulates the geography of the war and places American fighting men where they fought, thus managing to be a testament to the individual men as well as the Herculean effort of the entire U.S. armed forces and the nation that sent them to such far-flung locations.

Still, the National World War II Memorial was worth a visit. Among all its various elements, I was struck most by a wall marked by thousands of gold stars -- 4,048, I later learned -- with each star representing 100 Americans who died in the war, or more than 400,000 out of a population of about 132 million (using the 1940 Census). The equivalent proportion of the current U.S. population (2010 Census) would be more than 930,000 war dead.

We entered the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial from the fourth "room" end, at what might be considered the end of the memorial. It took me a while to figure that out, but once I did, I began to like the work. Rather than concentrate the memorial in one structure, designer Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect who died about two years ago, made the memorial an outdoor, horizontal array of stones, waterfalls and other features. It's roughly organized into four "rooms," each corresponding to one of FDR's terms in office, and each with a broadly appropriate theme, such as the president's death in the fourth "room" (since he really didn't get much of a fourth term) and the New Deal vs. the continuing misery of the Depression during his second term.

One of the sculptures in the second "room" in particular caught my attention, "The Breadline" by George Segal.

Behind the bread-line men in this image is "Rural Couple" by the same artist, which is a grim portrait of rural poverty of the time. Nearby is "The Fireside Chat," also a work by George Segal, which depicts a fellow clearly listening to his radio, supposedly to a Fireside Chat. But I thought, how do we know he really isn't listening to Amos 'n' Andy?

The third "room" includes a nine-foot statue of FDR by Neil Estern. Note that countless visitors have, since the memorial's opening in 1997, worn the president's index finger shiny. We did our little part to keep it shiny.

Next to FDR is Fala. I was glad to see he hasn't been forgotten, and very likely he's the only presidential dog represented at a presidential memorial (though a stuffed Liberty might be at the Ford Museum; I forget). Looks like people have been petting the bronze Fala.

Eleanor Roosevelt has her own bronze in the fourth "room," complete with symbols of her association with the United Nations. Nowhere in the memorial itself is there a statue of FDR in a visible wheelchair, though one was added near the entrance in 2001 after money was privately raised for that purpose. I was a little disappointed that I saw no bronzed depiction of Mr. Roosevelt holding a smoke in a long, aristocratic cigarette holder. He was careful not to be photographed in his wheelchair, but had no qualms about holding a cig for all the world to see. Time flies, things change.

A discussion of the various "rooms" is here. At the memorial's web site, the National Park Service answers the question, "What's with all the water?" in a FAQ section. "Water was an important aspect of President Roosevelt's life," it says. "As a young man growing up along New York State's Hudson River, he enjoyed swimming and sailing. During the First World War, he served as Assistant Secretary of the United States Navy. Following his polio diagnosis, he established the Warm Springs Institute in Georgia to help rehabilitate others combating the same disease. As president, FDR pushed for the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and supported other water power projects. So this theme was incorporated into his memorial."

On the north edge of the Tidal Basin is the site of the spanking-new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Draw a line from the Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial and MLK is right on that line, about halfway between them. When we walked by last week, a fence still blocked access to the almost-complete memorial, so we couldn't get a really good look at it. We missed its opening by a few days. In fact, I read that the memorial opened to the public just yesterday, with the dedication slated for Sunday, the 48th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

I was able to capture an image through the fence: A Determined MLK Jr. and an Orange Traffic Cone. I expect the cones have all been removed by now.

Two women were looking through the fence at the same time we were, talking about coming back for the dedication. They might be among the half-million or so who do. "He's got some prime real estate," one of the women said. Yes, indeed.

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