When gardens become reminders of war and tragedy

Photo courtesy Oehme van Sweden

I have two bones to pick about gardens being destroyed or co-opted to honor the dead.  Yes, I’m going there. First, a national war memorial threatens to destroy an important landscape and second, a garden is used to remind visitors of a local tragedy, a situation that could happen anywhere.

The important landscape is Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., about a block from the White House. It was designed by a rock star among landscape architects – M. Paul Friedberg – and updated by the famous local firm of Oehme van Sweden (featured recently on GardenRant). The sunny photos above show the park its its glory days, when the traffic-cancelling waterworks still worked, and the plants were alive and well.  I ate lunch there whenever I could.

Photo courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Above left, Pershing Park as it once was and right, as it is today. The Washington City Paper called it a “ghostly place.”  Today the fountain is broken, the delightful chairs and tables that once graced the park have been replaced by concrete benches, and the plantings and sunken water garden are long gone.

But instead of repairing and maintaining the park, Congress has decided it should be turned into yet another memorial to war – this time World War I.  This city already has two memorials to that war (including this one, recently renovated) but some see the need for another. Five designs have been chosen as finalists for a new WWI Memorial on the site, and they all call for demolition of the existing landscape.

Instead of, say, fixing the place, adding a new plaque about WWI, and saving money.

Thankfully there’s a national organization that cares about preserving significant landscapes like this one – The Cultural Landscape Foundation – and it’s hellbent on saving it. “Pershing Park is Threatened” tells the story, including how to help.

The Foundation’s director Charles Birnbaum explains the park’s situation today: “When you have a landscape that has a water feature, and you stop maintaining the water feature, then you stop maintaining the plantings at the same level. What we have here is bare-minimum maintenance. They empty the garbage.”

Issues here include the perennial problem of neglecting maintenance, the relative ease of raising funds for something shiny and new, and decision-makers who don’t value our “cultural landscapes.”


Another local garden I love is Brookside Gardens, Montgomery County, Maryland’s public garden, which includes this serene spot on its 25 acres. My beef is with what county leaders decided to place at the other end of this lake:

And below, an account of the months in 2002 when locals feared death by sniper shooting as they went about their daily lives.



And here are the names of the victims.

Of course I understand that the families of victims – of war, of random violence, of terrorism – might want a special place to remember their loved ones, and what prettier place to do that than in the nearest public garden?

But what about all the other garden visitors, who just want to spend time in a beautiful place and not have to “reflect on those lost to violence?”

Is the solution to create new places especially for remembrance? That would cost more, of course, and that’s probably the rub.


  1. I can only wonder at why Pershing Park was so changed–money? Security? The earlier version looks lovely. And of course, since we’re all gardeners here, less cement and more plants will always be preferable!

    As for memorials in general, I get why there are historical and war memorials, especially in DC. They are an events which we all share and remember. But the sniper memorial seems odd to me. Memorials to individual criminal events, tragic as they are, seem out of place in a public venue.

    All the words on rocks feel odd to me too; I would rather read them on a tastefully-made, carefully-placed sign than blaring out from a rock. The rigid fonts seem at odds with the natural form of the rock.

    • The memorial is not to the snipers but to the victims, just as the 9/11 memorials are. In my opinion the names on the rock are not blaring but rather understated. I recently visited Brookside and didn’t feel that this little spot troublesome at all. I found the message about peaceful coexistence to be very appropriate and calming.

      • Mary, I understand that the memorial is for the victims, not the snipers, my mistake. Maybe I should have said “sniper victims’ memorial” to describe it, instead?

  2. Interesting coincidence that you write about Pershing Park since I work across the street, we just had a fire drill and that is our rally point. 🙂 Perhaps it would be more appropriate to just restore it to its original glory and make it sort of an “adjunct World War I Memorial;” I mean that is what Pershing is most associated with anyways….

  3. I think we should put HUGE memorials in parks in all the cities that have had these senseless shootings–maybe when they’re in every city, in everyone’s face, all the time, we’ll do something about it.

    That said (or raved), I’m glad you went there. It is laziness and another example of our congress having the wrong priorities to let Pershing Park get to the state it is. Oh, but it is so much more glamorous to get your name in the paper for something NEW, some big project you can attach your name to–rather than preserve what is beautiful. It’s despicable.

  4. Appreciated your post! I thought I was the only one who felt this way, I agree with you. I’m not sure why there seems in our current day that there must be a memorial to all horrible events. Things like this have been going on since the world began and will continue. I appreciated that they are people who want their loved ones remember but I for one don’t wish to ponder and dwell on death and hatred when I’m surrounded by beautiful gardens and landscape. I go to parks to forget my troubles and my griefs and to admired the beautiful things in the world. We needs place where we can go and destress our lives. I’m all for maintaining our current gardens and I believe that people who do not garden do not understand how much work and time it takes to make and grow one. I’m not against memorials, they have there place but should not be at the expense of destroying a beautiful park. In our city they destroyed about 2 dozen trees that were over 100 years old, other shrubs and flowers and replaced it with a concrete memorial with concrete walk ways and benches, there is nothing of beauty just a cold dead memorial.
    Thank you for willingness to address this sentive issue.

  5. I don’t like the Brookside memorial. I lived through the 2002 sniper terrorist event — driving every day for weeks by the growing number of shooting sites — and every time I see this memorial I have a flood of bad memories. I remember sitting at traffic lights wondering if my head was about to explode. And I remember squatting down next to my car as I pumped gas so I wouldn’t be a stationary target. Of course I have sad feelings for the victims and their families; I even feel sadness for the younger of the two shooters, or terrorists as I insist on calling them. I don’t know if the memorial failed for me because I’m insensitive or because I’m overly sensitive. I just know that I don’t like the memorial.

  6. I generally agree with you, Susan. And it seems to me that memorials are now just being shoehorned into places at random. We need a memorial for something? Oh, look – here’s some empty space. We’ll put it here! It’s destroying the aesthetics of beautiful places where we go in search of peace and serenity. I don’t understand it.

  7. I sympathize with those victim’s family and friends who call for such memorials (having lived through the sniper’s terror as well), but I think as with all things “memorializing” – we should have a mandatory waiting period built in — from stamps to schools to parks — nothing should be named or given over to something without a cooling-off period of at least 10 years — 20 yrs would be even better. Passions run high, but time will always tell if such things deserve historic commemoration or not.
    I also have some resentment over DC becoming the nation’s dumping ground for things such grand-standing attempts as these — not fair to the residents who have to live with some of these ill-conceived memorials and re-namings — just ask the locals what our local airport is referred to– no one calls it anything other than “National.” Though I guess it is par for the course for a city named after a conqueror (Columbus) and also a war hero (Washington).

  8. I applaud your rant! Aren’t cemeteries the places for memorials/remembrance?

    I don’t want to go to my local public park to be reminded of senseless shootings… all I have to do is turn on the TV or my computer. It’s all already in our faces all the time. Most people I know who frequent public parks do so to unplug from the world’s tragedies – and just be outdoors.

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