Pershing Park, designed by renowned American landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, could be significantly altered if plans go through for a new National World War I Memorial Park in downtown Washington, DC.
Pershing Park opened in 1981 and was named for General John J. Pershing in honor of his leadership during World War I. Plans for Pershing Park began in 1972 when Congress created the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation to direct and oversee improvements to “America’s main street.” The group's attention soon fell on the future Pershing Park site, a small block at the terminus of Pennsylvania Avenue, east of the White House. Friedberg's design created a multilevel park with lawn terraces and amphitheater seating and stairs surrounding a central sunken plaza that can be turned into a reflecting pool in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter. A fountain at the end of the pool disguises a door for zamboni access and a small pavilion provides entrance into a below-ground changing areas. Oehme, van Sweden later designed plantings that were integrated into the park. The National Park Service, who oversees the park, has determined the park is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Listing does not provide any direct protection but indicates the value of the resource to our national heritage.
In 2014 Congress designated Pershing Park the site for the new National World War I Memorial and created the World War I Commission to overseeing its planning. The Commission held a design competition and selected a entry that envisioned a complete demolition of Pershing Park’s current design. The proposed project must be reviewed by both the National Capital Planning Commision (NCPC) and the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA). In their preliminary review, CFA asked for a “smaller intervention...perhaps a single sculpture in the round, or multiple elements distributed within or at the perimeter of the site” (PDF). CFA’s request represents a sharp departure from the original memorial design but indicates their clear interest in preserving “the complexity of the historic landscape, with its subtle sequence of spatial and sectional articulation, its intimate scale, and its contemplative character.” But just last week, NCPC approved a redesign which would alter the pool and demolish the waterfall and stairs in order to add a 65 foot commemorative wall. The NCPC executive director has encouraged the design team to reduce the length of the wall, incorporate the waterfall into the memorial design, and provide pool modification details.
Residents of Washington, DC these days would be forgiven for being unfamiliar with Pershing Park. Despite its central location and public amenities, the park today is underwhelming largely due to a lack of maintenance. As Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott put it,
The National Park Service... has allowed the space to fall into shameful disrepair. The park’s central feature, a large pool that once served as a fountain in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter, hasn’t been operational in years. Around it is cracked concrete, a shabby and abandoned gazebo, and sad-looking plantings that haven’t been properly maintained or replenished.
The ongoing debate about Pershing Park’s future, however fraught, is also an opportunity to call for the preservation of our architectural landscape heritage in the face of both potential redevelopment and ongoing neglect. With the the right focus and funding, Pershing Park could be home to another World War I memorial and largely restored to its original glory as an active, energetic public space.