Memorial fund drive begins, criticism or not, to vets' relief
By Steve Chambers, Star-Ledger Staff
As the effort to build a World War II memorial in New Jersey dragged on, Albert Martis would occasionally ask the official overseeing the project, “Colonel, am I going to live to see this?”
Last week, Col. Stephen G. Abel, the state’s deputy commissioner for veterans affairs, started to feel better about his answer.
The Department of Veterans and Military Affairs kicked off private fund-raising efforts early last week, mailing the first 450 letters to corporations, veterans organizations and others in a bid to raise $1.7 million for the project across from the Statehouse in Trenton. The state already has appropriated $2 million and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has pledged $1 million for the sweeping memorial.
Martis, a former Marine shot through the jaw on the Marshall Islands, is 84. He had grown increasingly concerned as he awaited legislative approval for the fund-raising and as one critic of the project launched a frenzied effort to change the design.
But acting Gov. Richard J. Codey signed the fund-raising bill eight days ago, and Abel now hopes the memorial which will require about nine months to build – can be completed by next spring, ideally in time for a Memorial Day opening.
While site preparation cannot start until the entire $4.7 million for the project is raised, Abel said artists soon will begin working on a number of elements, including a statue of Lady Victory, the focus of the memorial.
The statue will be centered in a park under a cupola, flanked by 12-foot-high enamel-and-steel walls that explain the World War II experiences of New Jersey veterans. Other elements will include fountains and bronze statues of a soldier and a battlefield marker – a rifle with its bayonet stuck in a ground and a helmet resting atop the stock, used to mark a temporary grave site.
The project has been dogged for months by a planner from New York named John Bergan, who is concerned that the memorial will be off-center in respect to the front door of the Statehouse.
Bergan, who formerly worked in Princeton, has held meetings with city leaders, business people, members of Codey’s staff and anyone else who will listen.
His strongest support to date has come from the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects, whose president said he is concerned that plans for the memorial were not properly vetted in the design community.
“These memorials last longer than we do,” Bruce Turner, the AIA president, said in an interview. “They need proper consideration.”
Bergan has repeated that theme in a barrage of phone calls and e-mail messages to state officials and journalists. “An off-centered World War II Memorial is a true missed opportunity, as it will not relate well to the historic Statehouse,” he said in one recent e-mail.
The national World War II Memorial, too, was accompanied by design controversy during the planning stages. It opened last year in Washington, D.C.
Bergan’s objections have not slowed the New Jersey project, but Abel and other veterans have viewed the debate with great angst.
Originally slated for a 2.5 acre site in Jersey City, the planned memorial was moved to Trenton a year ago to make it accessible to more of the public and to reduce the price tag. The memorial is to be centered in a park across the street from the Statehouse.
Designer Robert Smith, of the Denver-based DHM Design Corp., said last week it would be physically impossible to align the memorial with the Statehouse entrance without either radically reducing its size or tearing down adjacent historic buildings.
Smith designed the Korean War Memorial in Atlantic City and was awarded the World War II project based on a national design competition.
Bergan’s concern is linked to a broader vision he has for a sweeping boulevard that would provide a view of the Statehouse. Abel points out that this vision never gelled into a plan with financial backing. It would involve moving or demolishing buildings.
Abel also repeated the oft-spoken concern related to World War II memorials everywhere.
“In Mr. Bergan’s mind, delaying the memorial for a few months or years is not significant,” Abel said. “But it is significant in the minds of our World War II vets, whose average age is 80 and who are dying at an astounding rate.”
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