- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2012

An education center planned as a complement to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall earned an important go-ahead from the National Capital Planning Commission, which supporters say is one step closer to a dedicated space for all military services, but critics worry it could be a step backward for the sanctity of the memorial.

Plans for the $85 million project include exhibits to highlight soldiers and memories of the Vietnam War in the context of American military history from the 18th century to today.

The opening won’t be at least for two years but for Jan Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the price and patience is a necessity for its purpose.

“The unique nature of this whole enterprise is to celebrate service to the country using the synergy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the magnificence of the site,” Mr. Scruggs said. “The whole point of the education center is this is a place to educate young people, visitors to Washington, on the principles of duty, courage and honor.”

The 35,000 square foot education center is planned for a plot of empty land north of the Lincoln Memorial Circle and across Henry Bacon Drive on the northwest side of the memorial wall.

Roughly 4 million visitors descend annually into the jagged space carved out of the gently sloped Mall ground. There, etched into polished black granite panels, are the names of more than 58,000 soldiers killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War. On any given day, visitors can be seen pressing a name onto a piece of paper or leaving a memento at the foot of the wall.

It is this preservation of solemn reverence that has Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the Coalition to Save Our Mall, concerned about the center.

Her objection comes not from a rejection of honoring military service, but “an appreciation and deep feeling for the memorial itself.”

“It’s a powerful place for reconciliation and understanding,” she said. “When you have something as powerful as that, then you add something else, you can’t help the memorial. That’s the major objection: We are diminishing the memorial by adding this.”

Under the proposed design plans, visitors to the education center would visit an exhibit that traces American military history before going to another room where photographs of every name on the memorial wall are shown on an enormous screen.

Ms. Feldman suggested that instead of an education center — which might be the only stop for some visitors not interested in seeing the wall — the memorial fund could just allow visitors to access the collections of pictures and records of soldiers on the wall online with computers, smartphones and tablets.

It takes many years after a war has ended before a memorial can be built on the Mall, Mr. Scruggs explained, “for history to kind of figure out what was the impact of that war.”

The education center is not going to be a memorial for the Afghanistan or Iraq wars, but “this will be a place they all come … until they get their own memorial,” he said.

But it’s just that idea of attempting to unite all soldiers and putting faces to names that irritates Vietnam veteran Ray Saikus.

The Cleveland resident, who is active in the Equal Honor for All organization, said the center is “contrary to the intent of the memorial.”

“The memorial has been embracing people for 30 years without any interpretation,” Mr. Saikus said. “It will never lose significance because of the way all those names embrace the visitor.”

There’s no rank or ages etched into the walls, no way to tell gender, he explained, so “the tribute is paid equally to all of them.”

Beside the theoretical designs of the proposed center, Mr. Saikus said he is worried about the architectural aspects.

Though the architects behind the design plans were required to keep the center below ground, the center seems more like a tunnel, Mr. Saikus said, as opposed to the “open space, a place to meditate.”

For the designers at Ennead Architects, the firm behind the winning design, it is the opposite of a tunnel.

A wide pathway loops lazily in front of the planned center’s entrance to allow visitors to gradually make their way down to the doors, and avoiding that feeling “like going in to a basement,”said Thomas Wong, partner in Ennead Architects and lead of the design team.

Mr. Wong said his team conducted a number of work sessions with veterans groups, family members and educators to get a sense of what would fit in seamlessly with the current site.

From the planning commission’s standpoint, the design of the center needed to be one that balanced location and impact, senior urban planner and project team member Shane Dettman said.

“The design guidelines were to strike that balance between being appropriately restrictive and also to allow the designs to construct a facility that … ultimately results in an positive experience for the visitors,” Mr. Dettman said.

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