Like the women it celebrates - warriors, nurses, astronauts and spies - Washington’s newest monument had to crash through a wall.
A long-neglected, Depression-era granite edifice near the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery has become the facade for an etched-glass and polished-marble tribute to the 1.8 million women who served in the armed forces from the American Revolution to Desert Storm.
To build it, the designers had to smash through the towering wall to carve four entryways to the memorial behind it.
“In many ways, the existing wall represented the traditional structure,” said Marion Weiss, who with her husband, Michael Manfredi, designed the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
“The military infrastructure is a traditional structure, and women have changed it not monolithically, but over time - bit by bit,” Weiss said. “So now this wall has become a gateway. It’s not a monumental change, but a series of events that completely transforms the landscape that you see here. And that seems right.”
The $21.5 million memorial will flash the women’s stories onto high-tech screens, project their words onto gleaming walls and memorialize feats of derring-do in dignified exhibits.
Visitors will learn about the exalted as well as the unsung: tales about such people as Red Cross founder Clara Barton, Civil War spy Belle Boyd and World War I yeoman Lillian Peterson Budd.
With a computer keystroke, visitors will hear the story about a male recruiter who ordered Budd to disrobe for a physical exam if she wanted to join the Navy.
“Horrified, because girls didn’t even get into the bathtub without a nightgown on, she was still determined to join the Navy. She took off her skirt, blouse, shoes, stockings, corset, corset cover, three petticoats and ruffled bloomers. To another weeping girl who said: ‘You act like you don’t mind having no clothes on,’ she said reassuringly: ‘Oh, after the first couple of times you get used to this sort of thing!”’
The memorial for women has largely been the work of women like project manager Margaret Van Voast and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, who leads the nonprofit foundation that will operate the memorial.
“Women so frequently end up in second place or as second-class citizens, so to speak,” said Vaught, one of the most decorated military women in U.S. history. “I don’t think any of us would have ever dreamed that when the nation chose to honor us it would do it in such a visible way.”
“What’s been amazing about the stories we’ve heard from the women is they’re very modest,” said Manfredi, whose mother was a World War II Army captain. “There’s none of this macho, ‘I want a tall obelisk and I want it bigger than anybody else’s.’ It’s been a series of quiet voices, quiet struggles. And we were respectful of that idea.”
The designers have struggled, too.
Their original plan for 10 39-foot-tall glass spires atop the terrace that caps the site was rejected as “too far out.” So the architects came up with what is certain to be the memorial’s signature element.
The terrace is now topped with tilted cast-glass tablets - a skylight that will be inscribed with quotations by and about the women, testifying to the servicewomen’s contribution to their country. Sunlight will carry the words from the skylight to the walls and floor of an exhibit gallery below.
“The idea was if the binding had been torn off a journal of all the women’s stories, these would be the pages that are just fanned across the cemetery,” Weiss said. “They’re ephemeral and fragile, but they also are a magically permanent element.”