Image: Rendering of museum
Renderings by Ralph Appelbaum As
The 35,000-square-foot Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, shown in an artist's rendering, will be built almost entirely underground, an attempt to avoid overshadowing Washington's Vietnam memorial wall.
updated 10/18/2007 7:36:29 PM ET 2007-10-18T23:36:29

A design panel gave its blessing Thursday to an underground visitor center and exhibit space to accompany the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a grassy patch of the National Mall.

The 35,000-square-foot Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center is to be built between the Lincoln Memorial and the long, sloped wall of the Vietnam memorial. It will be almost entirely underground, an attempt to avoid overshadowing the wall and to reflect the simplicity of the memorial, with its more than 58,000 names of those killed in the war etched in polished black granite.

"It must convey to all who enter or all who pass by a solemn and meaningful experience that reinforces the monument's poetic impact," said James Polshek, a New York architect who presented his firm's design to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

The panel, an independent body of architects and designers that gives advice on memorials and other public projects in Washington, approved the underground design concept Thursday and will vote later on the specifics of the center. The vote is advisory, though the commission has considerable influence over the outcome of projects in the nation's capital.

The plan for the museum calls for visitors to descend into the center and pass along ramps that take them deeper underground, reaching 31 feet down at the lowest point. The shaft of an underground courtyard will let in natural light.

As they descend, visitors will pass by exhibits that include items left behind at the memorial to remember those who died and photos of service members who died. There will also be a timeline of the Vietnam conflict.

Cost projected to be $100 million
Planners expect about 1.5 million people to visit the center each year. It is projected to cost as much as $100 million, with a groundbreaking planned for 2010.

Congress approved construction in 2003. The role of the fine arts commission is to make recommendations on the design to the National Park Service and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the entities behind the center.

Commission members generally lauded the design but some worried that it may prove too large despite its being underground. Others speculated the series of subterranean walls bearing exhibits will too closely mirror the memorial itself.

A group called the National Coalition to Save Our Mall has accused the National Park Service of not providing enough time for public comments. The Associated Press left a request for comment with the Park Service on Thursday.

The group's chairwoman, Judy Scott Feldman, told the commission Thursday that issues including traffic and possible flooding had not been seriously considered. And she said the center is emblematic of overbuilding on a Mall already crowded with monuments and memorials.

"The designers have had to carve up the historical landscape of the National Mall," she said.

Veterans groups largely support the project. Ann Sherman Wolcott, who lost a son in Vietnam and is past president of a group for mothers of killed troops called Gold Star Mothers, said the center was a fitting accompaniment to the wall.

"I will be honored to know that some of my son's pictures, baby clothes and military items will be there as a reminder that he was really a person," she said.

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