Pershing Park as it stands today.
Courtesy Deane Madsen Pershing Park as it stands today.

Back in 2013, the United States World War I Centennial Commission was created by the  World War I Centennial Commission Act, passed by Congress in January 2013, which called for an open design competition for a war memorial located on Washington, D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue, in between the White House and the Capitol. The call for entries from the competition garnered around 350 submissionsmost of which would completely remake the 1.8-acre site. The slated completion date for the project is Nov. 11, 2019—or Veterans Day—which will be the the 100th anniversary of the signing for the armistice for World War I.

In response to the published plans, landscape architecture organizations, such as The Cultural Landscape Foundation, have voiced their concerns, claiming that both the design brief and subsequent proposals suggest a total demolition of the already built Pershing Park, even though the design brief mentions reuse or alteration. Rather than than scrap the 34-year-old site, designed by honored landscape architect firm M. Paul Friedberg and Partners and Oehme van Sweden for the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, it  has been suggested to both restore it or to put it on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, the commission is expected to announce a shortlist within days.

ARCHITECT spoke with Charles Birnbaum, the president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), to discuss the significance of Pershing Park, and how the 350 contenders for the design competition do not reflect that.

ARCHITECT: So in regards to Pershing Park, you’ve already said there needs to be more of a public discussion. What’s your current stance on it and how this came about?

Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Charles Birnbaum: I think when the competition package was announced, it seemed pretty clear that it was moving in a direction of wanting a new design, or a wholesale removal of what is there. And that is reflected in just doing a windshield survey of the 350 entries that have been received to date. And what we believe, about any urban park designed by a master landscape architect, is that there has to be an understanding of the significance of that design, and the integrity of that design, before making decisions of an outright removal of that design work.

And in this case, it is the work of M. Paul Friedberg. He’s actually receiving the ASLA medal in November, which is the highest honor the society bestows on any landscape architect. And it also includes the plantings of Oehme van Sweden & Associates, who are also master designers. Oehme van Sweden won the ASLA design award a few years ago, and both James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme are no longer living. Paul is retired. Which means that their work should be reviewed for eligibility on the National Register of Historic Places.

Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.
Courtesy Deane Madsen Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.

I read that this is the only park that all of those aforementioned architects worked on, is that correct?

Basically M. Paul Friedberg created the bone structure of that landscape, and then Oehme van Sweden was hired by the park service to revisit the plantings and do a much more ambitious planting plan. I think that’s reflected in the old photographs from when the park opened.

So it’s the only time that you have all three of these designers reflected in one design. I’m saying it that way because they didn’t collaborate exactly. Paul did the design, and the client—the National Park Service—turned around and said, “you know, we really want this to be a more lush design.” I think what’s so remarkable is here’s Paul creating the architecture that supports this design, all of these incredible steps that become steeper. Jim and Wolfgang are then dressing that landscape with very lush plantings with the goal of creating a water garden, very much inspired by Jim van Sweden’s trip to visit with Roberto Burle Marx, the famous Brazilian landscape architect. If you look at the plants and the photos from when Pershing Park was well-maintained, you see this kind of quality that you would find in a Burle Marx landscape design.

So it’s unique in terms of the design of modern and postmodern landscape architecture here in the U.S.

Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.
Courtesy Deane Madsen Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.
When the original park was built, it seemed like a significant move in urban design. There was such an initiative to create it, so why is there one now to just pull it down?

I think unfortunately what happened was that when the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) was terminated in 1996, they were no longer caring for those spaces. So what we’re looking at today is almost 20 years of incremental, diminished, and deferred maintenance. In the case of Pershing, the big issue in terms of maintenance is the water feature.

Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
I think what’s happened with the competition, is a philosophy of “Well, wouldn’t it just be better just to not have water that you don’t have to maintain, or to get rid of that entirely?”

So it’s not an issue of something falling from favor, I think that it’s about deferred maintenance. And so often what happens is that there’s a major reaction to get rid of it, instead of stepping back and saying, “Well wait a minute, should we be thinking about renewing this landscape somehow closer to its original design intent?”

We’re not purists here, saying that this design has to be restored exactly. We really believe that this design has a carrying capacity to be both a memorial [and a park] without destroying it. That people should still be able to go there for all the same reasons that they went there historically. It is after all, associated with General Pershing.

In your Huffington Post article, you said that not maintaining the park is “the equivalent of denying medical attention and then blaming the patient for getting gravely ill.”

Right. Exactly. And we could have many of these types of parallels. Think about what happens if you don’t floss every night. If you don’t brush. At some point your teeth are gonna start to fall out of your mouth. I mean we could make all sorts of medical analogies.

But you see, about landscape though, and in this design, it’s one thing to have a fountain [and] to see a fountain that’s not in working order. But you can also look at the plantings when they’re not maintained.

Now if you go to the Federal Reserve, which Oehme van Sweden designed as well, it is impeccably maintained. You can really see the exuberance of the plantings that Oehme van Sweden had designed. No one is gonna say we should really change the landscape of the Federal Reserve because it’s been well-maintained. Pershing Park has not been, unfortunately…

It’s not like Washingtonians were surveyed in how they want to see the plaza. That decision was made by people who don’t live here, by Congress.

Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

You said you’re not totally averse to alterations of this design. Would you propose alterations with the restoration?

If this design competition was written with an understanding of what the public review process would be for a nationally significant piece of landscape architecture, you would get very different design solutions. Most landscapes that are historic… go through rehabilitation so that you have what you call “character-defining.” Those signature elements in the design are renewed, and it’s a mixture of preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation.

The thing is, landscapes have to adapt. If you look at the proposals that are being made for Franklin Square, you can see that all of those that are working in the construct of historic visual and spatial qualities of that landscape. There’s a new fountain where there was a fountain. A building is proposed on a former building location. So when you look at Pershing Park, the question becomes “How do you renew this landscape, in a way that it also honors those who fought in the First World War.”

And I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. Just as an example, look at how many proposals have water features. That’s an essential design element in that area, so why propose something that is a wholesale removal?

The thing that makes Washington great is this issue of how you deal with continuity and change. Out of all the work that the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, Pershing Park is the most important. That visionary work laid the groundwork for work all around North America.

Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.
Courtesy Deane Madsen Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.