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New WWII Memorial to be Dedicated Saturday in Washington DC - 2004-05-27

In a city filled with museums, memorials and monuments, Washington has added yet another one: the World War II Memorial. As many as 200,000 people are expected to attend the dedication ceremony on Saturday, many of them veterans in their 70s and 80s.

The World War II Memorial has been open to the public for a month now, giving visitors ample opportunity to express their opinions about it.

"The layout of this place, it's nicely spread out so people won't get in each others way, but I'm wondering at the dedication how many people will be crowding in."

"It's such a moving memorial. It's awesome."

"I'm certainly glad that they did do something for World War II Veterans. I happened to be in the Atlantic Squadron in 1944."

"It would have been nice if it were done earlier."

"It's very impressive. It makes me very proud and because of my Purple Heart beret, lots of people have come up and shook my hand and said thank you."

"It would have been nice to have had it sooner so more veterans could have enjoyed seeing it, knowing that their participation in a very major event is being memorialized. We're dying off at something like 1100 a day and that is going to increase."

It took 17 years of artistic debate and legal wrangling to come up with a design for the memorial. Its location on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument raised concerns that it would interrupt the grand view along the mall that begins on Capitol Hill. Friedrich St. Florian came up with a solution that won him the contract to design the memorial.

"Of the 400-some entries, we were the only one to have thought of lowering the memorial plaza gently into the ground, " Mr. St. Florian said. "By lowering the plaza, we instantly do not block any views. That was the winning design and concept. The views thus go across the memorial. That was the winning design and concept. We were given a magnificent site by the way. Exactly two-thirds is water and landscaping-shrubs, groundcover, and grass. Only one-third is hard surface."

Mr. St. Florian, a naturalized citizen who was born in Austria, designed the new World War II Memorial as a space for contemplation surrounding an existing pool and fountains with arches representing the war fronts in Europe and Asia. The arches are linked by semicircles of pillars for each of America's states and territories. There is also a wall of four thousand gold stars, one for every hundred Americans who died in combat. Although his design was chosen from more than 400 proposals, Mr. St. Florian says he still had a number of battles to fight to get the memorial constructed.

"Even though we chose the classical [design] language, I still wanted it to be abstract, without ornament and decoration and without too many inscriptions," he said. "Every time at the memorial, when I go and visit it and see a vertical wall with no inscriptions, that means I had won a big battle. Stone has the ability to 'speak' for itself. Stone is silent by nature, but if you're a good listener, stone can speak as well."

In the weeks leading up to the dedication, Mr. St. Florian has had a chance to see for himself how his new memorial was being received by the public.

"The reaction from the veterans was very consistent. I observed them. I saw quite a number of veterans with tears in their eyes," he noted. "And I spoke with a number of them because they recognized me: my hard hat has my name on it. They came over and congratulated me. It wasn't a matter of approval of this particular design. It was gratitude: gratitude to their country that finally they were given a memorial on the National Mall."

The designer of the new World War II Memorial also took note of reactions from younger visitors.

"They are removed from World War II; they learn about it in their history classes. There's not the kind of immediacy in responding to it," he added. "They were curious and looked around. They ended up putting their feet in the Rainbow Pool. That's fine. I didn't think that, in itself, was disrespectful. From day one, when we started the design, we celebrate that we are a free people in a free country. We can behave in a way that's freer."

Ultimately, Mr. St. Florian hopes that the new World War II Memorial will simply be accepted as a logical part of the Washington landscape.

"I remembered the late J. Carter Brown, the former chairman of the Commission on fine Arts. He always said, 'Friedrich, your design is inevitable,'" he recalled. "It took me awhile to understand what he meant. What did he mean, inevitable? What it means is that [the memorial] is meant to be. Once you see it, you can't think of any other resolution to it."