Joe Weishaar was a 25-year-old designer seeking to become an architect and working in a Chicago architectural firm when he entered a contest to design the planned World War I Memorial in Washington.
Six years later, the Decatur resident is the lead architect for the $42 million project, which opened with a private event April 16 and to the public the following day. He won in a pool of 365 entries from 22 countries.
“Before this process, I didn’t know anything about World War I. I had no ties, no connections. For me it’s entirely been a learning experience,” said Weishaar, who has no known relatives who fought in the war. “It’s really incredible, not just for me but it should be pretty incredible for the country as a whole. To build a memorial 101 years after the event that it commemorates, that sort of thing just doesn’t happen.
“You normally build a memorial right after, and in a lot of ways this became a forgotten war. To build something that has a lasting tribute to the men and women who served in that conflict shows it still matters.”
The private opening event will include a first colors ceremony in which a flag that has been flown over the U.S. Capitol and nine WWI battlefield cemeteries in Europe in the last three years. Hosted by award-winning actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise, the program is co-sponsored by the United States World War I Centennial Commission, the Doughboy Foundation, the National Park Service and the American Battle Monuments Commission.
It will commemorate America’s role in the war and include military fanfare, musical performances and guest appearances by veterans and others from across the country.
The memorial is located inside the 1.8-acre Pershing Park, which sits on Pennsylvania Avenue by the southeast gates to the White House and is close to the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian. It’s the main/passion project of the World War I Centennial Commission, which was created by Congress in 2013 to plan, develop and execute nationwide programs focused on celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the war where 4.7 million American men and women served.
The memorial is paid for through private donations, an effort led by the commission’s fundraising arm, the Doughboy Foundation, which was named after the nickname given to U.S. infantrymen during the war. The commission will shut down once the memorial opens.
After winning the contest, Weishaar was the project’s lead designer until getting his architect’s license in October 2019 and being promoted to lead architect. He’s working with GWWO Architects, the memorial’s firm of record; landscape architect David Rubin and sculptor Sabin Howard.
The memorial will include a 58-foot, 3-inch-long sculpture of soldiers in action that is the largest freestanding bronze high-relief sculpture in the Western Hemisphere. But it won’t be installed until 2024, so in the mean time, Weishaar said, the memorial will have a temporary screen showing the final sketch of Howard’s sculpture design.
Edwin Fountain, who served as the commission’s vice chair until a year and a half ago but is still involved with the memorial project, said the organization wanted to make the design competition a global one because of all the countries involved in the war.
He said the first round of the contest was a blind one in terms of entries before five finalists were chosen and identified. Fountain added Weishaar’s design won the contest for two main reasons.
“One is that he very consciously set out to fit the design within the surrounding urban landscape,” he said. “This particular site is surrounded on all sides by some very iconic buildings and landscapes that are a variety of different design styles. It was a very complicated urban setting from a design standpoint. Joe’s design, more than the others, respect that setting and consciously had the site harmonize with the streetscape without competing with it
“There are other designs within the final five that would have made marvelous parks, but they would not have fit into the area of where it was in Washington. It also fit into the plan of the existing park. It built on the footprint of the existing site, because it was important to us that we were going to have to preserve the existing park to a certain degree.”
A third reason Weishaar’s design won was because it incorporated “a considerable amount of bas-relief (low-relief) sculpture,” which paid tribute to the soldiers in the war, Fountain said. He added he hopes the memorial puts The War to End All Wars on Americans’ minds as much as the other past wars, such as World War II, are.
“It’s very rewarding for me personally (because) it’s the climax, if you will, of a long process,” Fountain said. “I’ve been working on this in one form or another for 13 years. It’s very gratifying that so many talented people representing so many professional disciplines have come together and made this happen.”
Weishaar said he hopes anyone visiting Washington will stop by the memorial while there.
“I just hope that people, when they go see it, they take away the idea that World War I is important, that they’re inspired to go learn something else about the war,” he said. “That’s the whole reason we build these memorials, that these conflicts aren’t forgotten.”