National Mall and Memorial Parks | WORLD WAR I MEMORIAL

World War I Memorial in Washington, D. C.

World War I Memorial in Washington, D. C.

The National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington, D. C., officially opened to the public on April 17, 2021. If you are wondering why a memorial to such an important event was not built on the National Mall, there is a story behind this. The first national memorial in Washington, D. C., to commemorate a war was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982). Next came the Korean War Veterans Memorial (1995) and then the World War II Memorial (2004). The more recent the war, the more public support there is for a memorial. Why a World War I memorial was not built years ago is anyone’s guess, but as time wore on and the men who served died off, the memory of the war faded and the desire for a national memorial grew fainter. This is not to say that World War I memorials do not exist, for they do, it’s just that up until now it has been left to individual states and cities to erect their own memorials. Even Washington has the D. C. War Memorial that honors local residents who fought in the war.

D. C. War Memorial

D. C. War Memorial

The only exception to the “locals only” World War I memorials is the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. Construction on the 217-foot tower and museum began in 1921 and was completed in 1926. However, it was never officially recognized as a “national” memorial by the federal government. It eventually fell into disrepair and was closed in 1994, remaining so until a renovation was done that allowed it to reopened in 2002. Since that time, Missouri politicians have been pushing for federal recognition as a national memorial. George Bush declared it the National World War I Museum in 2004, and it 2014, it and the planned memorial at Pershing Park were both designated as National World War I memorials.

National World War I Museum and Memorial (photo by Jeff Slater)

National World War I Museum and Memorial (photo by Jeff Slater)

Once the World War II Memorial was dedicated, interest was stirred up about a World War I memorial. In 2000 and again in 2008, it was proposed to turn the D. C. War Memorial into a national memorial by expanding upon its construction, but this was never popular with local residents. Bills to make the Missouri monument the national memorial died before even coming to a vote in the Senate. Another idea was to use Pershing Park since a memorial to General Pershing was already there, but the consensus was that building a World War I memorial off of the National Mall diminished its importance. In the meantime, in 2003 a law was passed forbidding the building of any new memorials on the Mall, though exceptions could always be made by passing a new law.

General John Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces Memorial

General John Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces Memorial

It wasn’t until 2013 that a bill was signed by President Barack Obama that created a World War I Centennial Commission that was tasked with building the memorial. However, this got warring politicians no closer to choosing a site, which was somewhat of a problem. It was already out of the question to build a memorial by 2014, the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War I, and further delays would jeopardize a 2017 dedication date, the 100th Anniversary of the United States’ entry into the war. Not wanting to waste anymore time, the Committee chose Pershing Park for the memorial site, for fighting D. C. residents and politicians, as well as the National Park Service, was a losing battle.

In 2015, an international design competition was announced. Winning designers had to not only create a compelling World War I memorial, they also had to incorporate the Pershing Memorial, and because the park is between four busy downtown streets, continue to utilize the property as a city park. Approximately 300 submissions were received, and five finalists were announced in July 2015. These designs were further refined and judged again in December. A winner was announced in January 2016—architect Joseph Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard—and after finally raising $40 million from private donors, construction began in December 2019.

World War I Memorial in Washington, D. C.

World War I Memorial in Washington, D. C.

As mentioned, the World War I Memorial incorporates the original General John Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces Memorial dedicated in 1981. This honors only Pershing and Americans who fought in Europe during the war. The new memorial expands the honor role to include everyone involved: the U. S. Navy and Coast Guard, military personnel who did not fight in Europe, and civilians who were vital to the war effort.

General John Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces Memorial

General John Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces Memorial

Another feature of the World War I Memorial is the Belevdere, an elevated viewing platform embedded with information panels that discuss America’s involvement in the war. The names of important battles are etched into the outer wall.

The Belvedere at the World War I Memorial in Washington, D. C.

The Belvedere at the World War I Memorial in Washington, D. C.

View from the Belvedere at the World War I Memorial in Washington, D. C.

View from the Belvedere at the World War I Memorial in Washington, D. C.

What is not complete as of 2021 is the bas relief sculpture that will replace the illustrated panel located at the west end of the pool known as the Peace Fountain. Titled A Soldier’s Journey, it depicts one man’s wartime journey from the start to the end of World War I. This is set to be completed and installed in 2022. Chances are that this web page will not be updated before then, so the sculpture may be in place by the time you visit.

A Soldier's Journey, part of the World War I Memorial in Washington, D. C.

A Soldier’s Journey, part of the World War I Memorial in Washington, D. C.

Information panel explains the meaning of A Soldier's Journey, part of the World War I Memorial

Information panel explains the meaning of A Soldier’s Journey, part of the World War I Memorial

When I visited the World War I Memorial in August 2021, a National Park Service Ranger was on hand to answer questions. If you have an opportunity to speak with a Ranger, be sure to take the chance to do so. There are plenty of information panels at the site as well, so it is possible to learn about the memorial on your own. A visit should take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, depending on your interest in World War I.

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Last updated on January 13, 2022
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