Patience Key to Paying Homage

Memorial Design, Money Issues Can Create Years of Hurdles

 

By Petula Dvorak

Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, January 23, 2006; Page B01

 

To build a memorial honoring the victims of communism, Lee Edwards raised thousands of dollars with fancy dinners featuring vodka and Chopin. He got glowing reviews from architects and designers who loved the proposed design, a statue called Lady Democracy.

 

But his 12-year effort was almost derailed by one holdout: a bedridden Advisory Neighborhood Commission member.

 

"That's what it all came down to. All of us had to go to his nursing home, give the presentation. We had all the pictures, the documents, everyone there, gathered at his bedside. Then he finally gave us approval," said Edwards, chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

 

Lady Democracy, being built two blocks from Union Station, is one of about a dozen Washington monuments waiting somewhere along the path to creation. They include a waterfront park honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; a memorial to the victims of Ukrainian famine and genocide; and one paying tribute to disabled American veterans.

 

Many of the sponsors, like Edwards, have learned how long that wait can be. Indeed, when people approach federal officials with an idea in marble, a grand plan in granite, a vision in bronze, they are warned that building a memorial in Washington can take longer than what it commemorates -- the 17-year campaign to erect the National World War II Memorial a case in point.

 

Roadblocks can include controversy over the site, an arts commissioner who doesn't like the design or, most notably, lack of funding.

 

"Looking at raising this kind of money -- whew. It's like that old African proverb: 'How do you eat an elephant?' It's got to be one bite at a time," said Peggy Seats, who is exhausted and broke but optimistic as she talks about raising $25 million to build a statue, clock tower and visitors center at L'Enfant Plaza to pay tribute to Benjamin Banneker.

 

She's been at it for nine years.

 

Seats, who used to be in corporate marketing in Chicago, lived in a big house and had lots of pretty things. Today, she lives in an apartment. It doubles as the office for her foundation to honor Banneker, the self-taught African American astronomer, clockmaker, abolitionist and surveyor who helped implement L'Enfant's plan for Washington.

 

"We operate off of air. There's so little money," she said. "I keep wondering if I should be put in a mental institution. This is crazy, isn't it? This has not been healthy for my personal life."

 

She knows that it can be a grueling path that has wrecked homes, careers, friendships and finances.

 

A proposal for a memorial first has to clear a legislative hurdle. Advocates must persuade a member of Congress to introduce a bill calling for the monument's creation. If the bill passes the House and Senate, the sponsor has to find a site, a designer and the cash.

 

The Mall is the place to be. But legislation prohibits additional construction there unless Congress makes a special provision. Three projects have that status: the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center.

 

Jan Scruggs, the patriarch of the memorial-building set, managed to get the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built in three years, starting in 1979 with his own savings. His 15th Street office is a regular stop for those embarking on the process and hoping to learn from him.

 

Now Scruggs himself is back in action, fighting for an underground visitors center near the Wall. He prepares for battle with stacks of reports and legions of supporters when he goes to federal commission meetings: "I'm ready for them," he snarls.

 

Congress approved a visitors center "at or near" the Wall. Scruggs wants it across Henry Bacon Drive and near the Lincoln Memorial. Planning commissioners want him to look at other sites.

 

So Scruggs contracted with a Howard University professor to author a study about the phrase "at or near" to make his case for the original site. And he paid a traffic engineer $6,000 to count cars and bolster his argument that tourists shouldn't have to cross too many streets to get to his center.

 

At least Scruggs is already on the Mall. Others have to choose from 100 other sites recommended by the National Capital Planning Commission. Many are pocket parks or forgotten parcels of land throughout Washington.

 

But that is just fine for some groups.

 

Organizers of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Gardens wanted a site in Anacostia, at Poplar Point, a few blocks from Douglass's Cedar Hill estate.

 

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial will be off the Mall, at Independence and Maryland avenues SW, but near the Capitol, the National Air and Space Museum, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation. The location reflects Eisenhower's establishment of NASA, the interstate highway system and the FAA, as well as his respect for Congress, said Brig. Gen. Carl W. Reddel, executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which uses the slogan, "I still like Ike."

 

Once a site is chosen, the design can take another few years. This is when the vision meets with the reality of cost, feasibility and good taste.

 

"There were too many elements -- fire, a star, water, two kinds of walls, writing, sculpture, landscaping -- but there was no clear hierarchy," one member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts said after Disabled Veterans for Life leaders unveiled their intricate memorial.

 

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, an arching stone wall along the Tidal Basin, was praised as "genius" by one commissioner, but its originality was questioned by another.

 

And the Chinese Embassy tried in vain to stop the Victims of Communism Memorial from depicting the statue that student protesters built in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

 

The federal government won't pay for memorials, so fundraising is the responsibility of the project's sponsor. Many donations for the Victims of Communism Memorial came in $10 increments from Cuban emigrants. At the other end of the spectrum, filmmaker George Lucas recently gave $1 million to the Martin Luther King Jr. project.

 

Once a project has the approval of the National Capital Memorial Commission, the National Capital Planning Agency, the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts and the State Historic Preservation Office, and the sponsor presents bank statements proving that it has the necessary cash, a construction permit is issued.

 

Not all proposals make it that far. The Thomas Paine Memorial group won legislative approval but floundered for 11 years before giving up in 2003, leaving behind bitter Paine fans. Brian McCartin, director of the Thomas Paine museum in New Rochelle, N.Y., blames a lackluster fundraising campaign. "We could've had a Thomas Paine Memorial. We could've. There was a failure of commitment. You have to be dedicated. You have to be committed," McCartin said.

 

The Peace Corps tried to build the National Peace Garden, but that effort withered after 15 years of work for lack of money. "It was a garden. Not a statue or a memorial. Who was going to get behind a garden?" said one government official familiar with the project.

 

The Black Revolutionary War Patriots, one of the last memorials authorized for the Mall, failed to meet a fundraising deadline set by Congress and lost its authorization in October. But another group, the Liberty Fund, is trying to win that spot with a different memorial to the same cause.

 

The original artist selected by the Black Revolutionary War Patriots, who has been working on the project for almost 20 years, is going to keep pushing for the memorial to be built and for the use of his design.

 

"I'm 72 years old, and this was going to be the last one," said Ed Dwight, a Denver sculptor who before turning to art was the first African American trained as an astronaut.

 

"This was going to be the biggie for me. And we've got to get it made. It's going to happen."



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