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Washington's 'Monumental' Controversy

Plans for WWII memorial spark concern that the capital's famous Mall is getting too crowded

Orlando, Fla., has Disney World. Memphis has Graceland. But Washington has America's consummate trip down memory lane - the memorial-studded Mall.

In the past 15 years, a spate of new war memorials here - testaments to the men and women who gave their lives in service to their country - has helped to make Washington the No. 2 tourist destination in the United States.

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Now, President Clinton has unveiled a design for a World War II memorial to be added to the Mall, a 146-acre space bounded by the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson memorials and the Capitol. While no one disputes the momentousness of the war or of the servicemen's sacrifice, concerns are mounting that continued construction will eventually detract from other memorials and alter the Mall's hushed ambiance.

But a new memorial undeniably contributes to the local economy. In 1995, 20.4 million visitors - almost 2 million more than the year before - spent about $8 billion in the capital, in part to tour the war memorials erected amid quiet pools and grassy glens.

"Whenever a new memorial opens, it offers individuals another reason to come back - or, visit for the first time," says Marie Tibor of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association. "It is a great promotion for the city - an opportunity for us to celebrate."

Arguably, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has been the biggest surprise in terms of tourist attraction. Finished in 1982 as the first new monument to be added to the Mall in 50 years, the stark black granite wall is etched with the names of more than 58,000 men and women who died in Vietnam.

The Vietnam memorial was a "totally unpredicted phenomenal success in terms of numbers of visitors," says Earle Kittleman, spokesman for the National Park Service, which cares for the memorials. "We were getting between 3 [million] and 4 million visitors a year after it opened."

The memorial is still drawing more than 1.3 million people per year. On a recent weekend, eight tour buses were parked in the lot closest to the Vietnam memorial. Visiting veterans laid a wreath of greens and white and red carnations at the vertex of the walls. One woman placed a miniature potted daffodil at the base of one section. Others were making pencil rubbings of names.

"It makes me proud that throughout the future, people will see those names," says visitor Jim Doyle, who served nine months as an infantryman in Vietnam in 1969. "[Visitors] won't know those people, but they will know that these were real living persons and will honor and respect the commitment they made." Mr. Doyle, who recently retired from a telephone company in California, says he has visited the wall several times.

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That continued attention, Mr. Kittleman says, has led to an explosion of memorials on the National Park Service land. A Vietnam Women's Memorial, a statue of three women aiding a fallen soldier, was dedicated near the wall 2-1/2 years ago.

The Korean War Memorial - seven-foot-tall sculptures portraying American servicemen slogging through Korea's rice paddies - was dedicated in July 1995. Several others, including a Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial near the Jefferson Memorial, are under construction.

All proposals for new commemoratives go through a rigorous approval process. Congress, which must legislate new memorials, in 1986 set up a triumvirate in Washington to approve new projects: the Commission on Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the secretary of interior.

Maintaining the vistas that were included in George Washington's original plans for the city is one of the major aims of the group, according to Kittleman.

But critics say that is changing.

"There's a law that was supposed to limit memorials," says Benjamin Forgey, architectural critic for The Washington Post. "The central Mall is supposed to be reserved for events of utmost historical import."

Mr. Forgey says that the aesthetic beauty of the Mall has been fairly well-protected, but he is concerned about plans for the new World War II Memorial. Although the memorial certainly qualifies as being of the "utmost historical import," he says, it is "too big with too much going on."

The memorial will be situated at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The design calls for a sunken plaza framed by high stone walls and two curves of 25 fluted, 40-foot-high columns - representing each of the 50 states.

"This is going to change things quite a bit," Forgey adds.

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