'Exactly one century overdue:' the artists behind DC's new national WWI memorial

Elizabeth Howe
November 11, 2018 - 4:54 pm

The United States World War One Centennial Commission hosted a full weekend of events to celebrate Veterans Day and the reveal of a project years in the making — the first national World War I memorial in D.C.

"This is exactly one century overdue," said Thomas Moe, retired Air Force colonel and commissioner colonel for the U.S. WWI Centennial Commission. "We're going to put it here right next to General Pershing and his memorial as well — so that when General Pershing's image stands there with his field glasses, he's looking across the way at his men."

One hundred years later, there is still no national World War I memorial in D.C. — something that's about to change due to years of hard work by the WWI Centennial Commission. 

When the commission was finally approved to create the memorial in 2014 (with the stipulation that the memorial was to be created without taxpayer funding), they turned to architect Joe Weishaar to design the actual memorial. Weishaar brought Sabin Howard on to the team after he was drawn to Howard's ability to portray emotions through his sculptures.

"In that first design, the idea emerged that we needed to tell the story of the people who were involved in this war and make sure that they weren't forgotten," said Joe Weishaar. "And the best way I could think to do that was to create some sort of replica of what people looked like, what the event looked like, the emotions."

"I think what really drove me to get involved in this project was that I realized — after looking at imagery of what WWI looked like, I was struck by how young the soldiers and the women and children were that were affected by this war."

Howard started by taking 12,000 pictures of models wearing authentic, 100-year-old uniforms that were worn in combat in WWI.

"I didn't shoot the photographs straight up," Howard said. "I lowered my eye level to about mid-knee. Shooting slightly below gave the figures a sense of monumentality and heroism — so I could create something from my drawing that was heroic. But here's the trick. It's also intimate at the same time. This memorial is about the process of being human. It's not the glorification of war — what I did is I created something that everybody would understand."

He then spent 60,000 hours studying the images and the models in order to build the story of WWI in one cohesive monument. 

The result is a memorial that is intimate, monumental, kinetic, and heroic. Experienced from left to right, individuals can "read" the memorial — feel the full range of emotions experienced before, during, and after combat. 

The memorial, expected to be built within the next few years, will "reunite" Pershing Park. 

"We are reuniting this park," Weishaar said. "The entire park is the memorial. It's not just the Pershing memorial tucked away in the corner. We're reuniting General Pershing with his soldiers and balancing the two elements of the park — making it into a new cohesive world."

"This was a war that transformed the world. It transformed me as an artist," Howard said. "I'm hoping that any person that comes to the memorial will be transformed as well and begin to care a little bit more about the planet and the direction that we head."