Washington's World War II Memorial won't be dedicated until Memorial Day weekend, but visitors to the U.S. capital will be able to explore it starting this month.
With construction ahead of schedule -- and hundreds of World War II veterans dying every day -- builders of the $107 million monument decided it didn't make sense to keep it off limits to the public any longer than necessary.
As contractors rushed Thursday to finish the landscaping, representatives of the American Battle Monuments Commission announced that the construction fences would soon come down and that the completed memorial would have a "soft opening" by month's end.
"This memorial may be a first in Washington," Gen. Paul Xavier "P.X." Kelley, chairman of the monuments commission, boasted during a preview for the news media. "We are not only ahead of schedule. We are under budget.
"With our World War II veterans dying off at a rate of 1,200 a day," Kelley said, "we asked ourselves, 'Can we in good faith leave the memorial on an inactive status, between the date of completion and the date of the dedication, or should we go forward with the opening?' and we said 'Let's do it.' It's a great tribute to the Greatest Generation."
The monument is reaching completion almost 11 years after President Clinton signed legislation authorizing construction, on May 25, 1993.
Designed principally by Friedrich St. Florian, a Rhode Island-based architect who grew up in Austria and won a 1996 competition, it is the first national memorial dedicated to all who served during World War II.
It occupies a prominent spot on Washington's Mall, a 7.4-acre parcel between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and has been under construction since August 2001.
The memorial's central feature is a sunken oval plaza that will serve as a new public gathering spot, with the Mall's reconstructed Rainbow Pool at its center.
The plaza is framed by architectural features that are laden with symbolism, including 56 granite pillars representing the states and territories that joined forces during the war, and two arched pavilions that symbolize the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the war.
A curving "Freedom Wall" contains 4,000 sculpted gold stars, commemorating the more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives. During the war, the gold star was the symbol of family sacrifice.
St. Florian pared down his original design after critics voiced concerns that it was too large and ostentatious to fit comfortably on the Mall.
The architect said Thursday that he was pleased with the final result and hopeful that it would inspire visitors to learn more about the event.
Memorials such as this are not built solely for the veterans, he said. "Memorials are built for future generations to see The real beneficiaries have to be the young people -- 100 years from now, 150 years from now -- who come here and don't know much about World War II."
The war was "the watershed event of the 20th century," he said. "We have built a very powerful memorial that really is commensurate with the enormity of the event" it marks.
Other key design-team members include Leo A. Daly, the architect of record; George Hartman of Hartman Cox Architect; James A. van Sweden of Oehme, van Sweden and Associates, the landscape architect; sculptor Raymond Kaskey and stone carver Nicholas Benson.
According to Kelley and others, the monument's construction cost is about $2 million under budget, and most of the funds have come in private contributions. The commission has received more than $194 million in cash and pledges, of which $16 million was provided by the federal government.
The monuments commission has planned a four-day dedication celebration, "Tribute to a Generation," May 27-30. It marks the start of a summer-long celebration in Washington honoring America's World War II generation.
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