The Design Process

On October 28, 1986, Congress authorized the American Battle Monuments Commission to establish a memorial in Washington, DC, to honor members of the US armed forces who served in the Korean War. President Ronald Reagan appointed the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board to recommend a site and design and to raise construction funds.

The design for the Korean War Veterans Memorial was to be the product of an open design competition, announced September 26, 1988. The members of the advisory board served as the official judges for the design competition. Five non-voting professional consultants, including architects and artists, assisted the board members. The board selected first, second and third place winners on June 1, 1989. The winning design had been submitted by Veronica Burns-Lucas, Don Leon, John Lucas, and Eliza Oberholtzer-Pennypacker from Penn State University.

Although the American Battle Monuments Commission approved of the winning design, when it went before other authorities like the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts, it ran into trouble. The following text from The History of Fine Arts Commission describes some of the controversies that surrounded the winning design:

In July 1989, the Commission of Fine Arts saw the winning entry and listened to General Richard Stilwell (USA Ret.), chairman of the (Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory) Board, discuss the statement of concept that had been given to all of the competitors. The major points were that the Korean War had been waged in the cause of freedom, and unlike the Vietnam War, there had been a victory in geo-political terms. Although the memorial would be American, it would pay homage to all those who had participated, including those from the United Nations forces.

Ms. Lucas explained the design concept to the members. She said the site would complete the cruciform plan of memorials on the Mall, complementing the Vietnam Memorial on the other side of the Lincoln Memorial/Washington Monument axis. She explained that as one approached the site, the figures of thirty-eight statues of marching foot soldiers, over seven feet tall, would be seen in the distance, recalling the repetitive image of long lines of men moving across the Korean landscape during the war.

At the memorial entrance, the visitors would begin the walk along an ascending ramp, about 300 feet long, flanked by soldiers, seemingly marching through “a landscape symbolic of war.” This effect will be achieved by setting the statues in rushing water, flanked on either side by fields of barberry bushes, with plane trees pruned in torturous shapes defining the memorial area on the Mall.

At the top of the ramp, pools of still water, signifying the end of the war, would be followed by a shorter ramp descending to a paved plaza with the American flag on axis and the Washington Monument in the distance. Looking back, the visitor would see a wall with inscriptions and sketches recalling the various activities associated with combat, depictions of the country and people of Korea, and a reminder that 21 (other) nations had participated in the conflict. At one end of the wall an alcove would commemorate the dead and missing, and those who were prisoners of war.

The emphasis in this part of the memorial would be on the end of the struggle and the prospect for peace. The landscape would change accordingly, with the dogwood trees defining the Mall boundary, and arborvitae and stone seating bench edging the arc-shaped walk at the southern boundary of the memorial which would take the visitor back to the entrance.

The (CFA) members congratulated the design team on the sensitive way in which the concept had been handled, and then discussed the questions they had, as well as others that had been raised by the Park Service and the Memorial Advisory Commission.

Some of the questions were technical - how to keep moss and algae from growing in the water, where to place the circulating pumps, and how to maintain the thorny barberry and pruned plane trees. Others were concerned with elements of design - how to enforce the one-way traffic circulation, how to keep the memorial from being too walled off from the rest of the Mall, and how to soften the plaza area, which, with its great amount of granite paving, seemed unnecessarily harsh.

Elements of the landscaping were also questioned, especially the dogwood, because of a blight that was spreading rapidly in the Washington area, and an arborvitae, because it looked too stiff; holly was suggested instead. Questions were asked also about the sculpture - the advisability and even possibility of one person doing all thirty-eight statues. At the end of the discussion, it was agreed that the concept could be approved, but there were many details of the design that needed more study.

In December of 1990 the (CFA) saw a revised design. In the intervening time, the Korean War Memorial Advisory Board had hired an architectural firm, Cooper-Lecky Associates, to produce the working drawings and supervise construction of the memorial, making any necessary adjustments to the design as the details were developed. The firm had performed a similar function for the Vietnam memorial. A sculptor, Frank Gaylord, had also been selected, and by late 1990 had already produced clay maquettes of thirty-eight soldiers. It was agreed that the sculpture material would be aluminum or white bronze, rather than granite, because of the ease of working in metal and the ability to produce more detail.

When the (CFA) members first saw the revised design, they were surprised at how much it had changed. The line of figures no longer ran parallel to the reflecting pool, but on a diagonal, making a visual connection between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. The line terminated at a flag plaza, then a curved wall angled off toward a reflecting pool; on the wall would be inscriptions and pictorial recognition of the various support troops. The visitors then enter a comparative grove, where the dead and missing are honored, before leaving the memorial on the Mall path system.

The fields of barberry, tortured trees and the arc of arborvitae screening the figures from Independence Ave. had been eliminated. The landscaping was softer, more in keeping with Constitution Gardens on the other side of the Reflecting Pool, and berming and trees were used to screen the soldiers from the avenue.

Architect Kent Cooper said he had not intended to alter the original design to this extent when he began trying to address the concerns of the various reviewing agencies and the Korean War Memorial Board, whose members had been very pleased with the concept of the line of soldiers, but less enthusiastic about other aspects of the competition winning scheme. He said it was when he started working with the circulation problem that the design really began to change. It was noted that the landscape architect firm that had won the competition had declined to work with Mr. Cooper in making changes to their design.

Representatives from this firm then asked to present their response to criticisms made by the Commission at the July 1989 meeting. They stated first that they considered Mr. Cooper’s design a totally new concept, dramatically opposed to theirs. The Commission listened to their presentation but confined their discussion primarily to Mr. Cooper’s revised design, which was what had been submitted to them by the American Battle Monuments Commission, an agency responsible for erecting the memorial.

The members agreed that there were now two designs for the Memorial, not one that had been revised. And they agreed that they both had the same problem - too many elements. The new scheme, in fact, seemed to be three separate memorials; in dealing with the problems of circulation and the walling off of the memorial from the Mall, it had lost the sense of focus and unity seen in the original design, and it had made the memorial, with its thirty-eight sculptured figures, visible from all over that part of the Mall. The chairman observed that the great success of the Vietnam Memorial was that it had not disturbed the existing Mall elements.

The portrayal of the thirty-eight soldiers also worried the members. They were impressed by the photography of the clay maquettes that Mr. Gaylord presented but concerned that they would become too realistic as they were developed. Instead of the line of semi-abstract stone figures, moving from war to peace, seen in the original design, these soldiers were seen to be on a mission, encountering enemy fire, and they were portrayed in a great variety of poses.

The (CFA) Chairman told General Stilwell that it was clear the commission was not ready to take any action, that there was not enough design information on which to base a decision.

Eventually, the original team of architects who won the competition for the memorial design dropped by the wayside. In order to regain control of their design, they attempted to sue the federal government, but lost. At that point, the architectural firm of record, Cooper-Lecky Associates became the principle design team.

The Final Design
The numerous commissions continued to balk at elements of the design. Finally, on March 5th, 1992, the National Capital Planning Commission issued its final approval and the process moved forward.

On June 14, 1992, President Bush led the groundbreaking by turning the first shovel of dirt. The architectural firm explained its vision for the memorial as “The Visitor Experience” in the groundbreaking ceremonial program:

Continuing down a gentle slope, through dense plantings, the visitor to the Memorial suddenly arrives at the base of a triangular, open field which slopes upward towards an American flag at the far apex.

Two columns of battle clad ground troops are advancing up the slope. Made of light colored metal, the wind at their backs, these figures seem propelled with ever increasing intensity towards a destiny beyond the flag which they serve. They remind us of the steadfast courage in the face of extreme danger so often required in the Korean conflict.

At the south edge of the clearing is a polished granite memorial wall etched with hundreds of faces of those who supported the troops: the Airmen, Nurses, Chaplains, Artillerymen, Sailors, Tank Drivers, Supply Personnel, and others. All seem to look out intently at the poignant scene.

As the visitor moves upward beside the columns of troops, a circle of linden trees, located just beyond the flag, comes into view. Passing the last figure, the visitor enters this quiet grove with a still pool at its center.

The pool is ringed with benches where the visitor may pause to reflect on both the bravery of these men and women and the tragic loss.

When the visitor is ready to leave the pool area, a pathway leads back down the slope, along the Memorial wall. As the visitor descends, the etched faces of the support forces mix with those of the ground troops, who are now reflected in the polished granite. These intermingled images graphically symbolize the unity of all who served.

Ground was broken in November 1993. Frank Gaylord was chosen as the principal sculptor of the statues and Louis Nelson was selected to create the mural of etched faces on the wall. President Bill Clinton and Kim Young Sam, president of the Republic fo South Korea, dedicated the memorial on July 27, 1995, the 42nd anniversary of the armistice that ended the war.

Last updated: July 26, 2022

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

1100 Ohio Drive SW
Washington, DC 20242


202 426-6841

Contact Us