by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Founded in 1866, just prior to the first significant period of growth in Los Angeles, which lasted from about 1868 to 1875, and as the town was developing south and west away from the Plaza, the community’s first park and open space, Central Park was situated in what was initially a residential enclave. At the end of another boom, the much larger Boom of the 1880s, the southern branch of the state’s Normal School, a teacher education college, opened on the hill to the park’s west and commercial development soon followed.
As one of the few public spaces with grass, trees and walks, Central Park was popular with residents and tourists, with some of the latter staying at hotels near the park. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, a monument to the 7th Regiment, which was composed of local fighting men, was erected in it, this being the first instance of military memorialization in the park.
Then came the First World War, the conclusion of which took place a century ago on Sunday. The City Council wasted no time in meeting and voting to change the name of Central Park to Pershing Square to honor General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, which fought in France in the latter stages of the four-year conflict.
As was generally (!) the case after major military conflicts, Pershing became a war hero across the country, though Los Angeles congratulated itself on being the first city to recognize the general in the way that it did. On 12 November 1918, the day after the signing of the armistice and the massive celebrations that followed, City Council member Neal P. Olson offered a resolution to change the name of Central Park to Pershing Square.
The vote was unanimous to approve Olson’s resolution and the council added to it that a public subscription would be offered to erect a “suitable memorial to the splendid services rendered by Gen. Pershing and the army and navy of the United States of America, which will be a lasting mark of appreciation of the people of Los Angeles.” Council President Bert Farmer was asked to invite representatives of some fifty civic and community organizations to attend a meeting two days later to discuss plans for the memorial.
Not that the renaming of Central Park evoked unanimous positive sentiment. The Native Sons of the Golden West, a group of “pioneers” and descendants who were almost largely composed of Americans and Europeans (leaving out Latinos, much less native aboriginal Indians), registered public disapproval.
Herman Lichtenberger, whose Prussian-born father, Louis, came to Los Angeles in 1863 where he opened a carriage and wagon-making business and served on the city council, spoke before the council and “said he did not desire to be understood as being opposed to paying respect and honor to our great military leader” but that “Central Park is an established landmark with the public, just as the Plaza is, and I think we ought to preserve our historic traditions.”
Advocating that the city create more historic landmarks and monuments, Lichtenberger added, “I would choose one of the other parks for such a purpose. Why not take Westlake, Lincoln or some of the other younger parks?” Despite the protest of Lichtenberger and the Sons of the Golden West, the council moved forward with the name change and the memorial.
The Los Angeles Times also disapproved of the idea, but did so in a very muted and understated way, something it was not otherwise known for when it came to politics, unionization and other topics of great importance for its publishers. Perhaps the strong sentiment in favor of the renaming because of the patriotic fervor of the immediate postwar period had an effect, too.
Whatever the case, the Times offered a very brief statement in its “Pen Points” column on 16 November, merely observing, “Central Park will now be known as Pershing Square. Why not postpone the dedication until the great soldier returns to America?” On 19 December, in an editorial praising Judge Charles Silent, who’d died a few days prior, the paper lauded his work with real estate projects (Chester Place was named for his son, killed in a hunting accident) and with parks, remarking:
. . . in Central Park (as the Times prefers to call it, rather than Pershing Square—an empty compliment.
The passing criticism about the renaming as “an empty compliment” went unexplained, though the Times perhaps wanted Pershing memorialized in some other way, much along the lines of what Lichtenberger and the Sons of the Golden West advocated.
Although Mayor Frederick Woodman protested the mass meeting in council chambers because it violated an ordinance against large assemblages at city hall, the name change was officially made on the 15th by ordinance and a committee of fifteen, headed by Council President Farmer, was selected to begin work on the memorial, which was to be paid for by the public subscription of $1 million.
The memorial, also known as the Victory Memorial, never happened, though. There was a Pershing Memorial, including a life-sized statue of the general, built at Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., which was opened in 1981. Later, efforts to have a national World War I memorial were initiated, with legislation introduced in 2008, but the senators from Missouri objected because the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, completed in 1926, was their choice for a national memorial. Washington’s mayor and Congressional delegate, which has its own war memorial, also objected to having it overshadowed by a new national one.
Finally, Congress passed a bill early in this decade for two national memorials, the one in Missouri and one to be erected in Washington, the latter as part of a centennial commemoration and to be placed in Pershing Park (an earlier attempt to put the monument on the National Mall was abandoned.) The park’s landscape architect, however, objected to a reshaping of his design and threatened legal action.
In 2016, a 25-year old architect, Joseph Weishaar, won a design competition with his entry, “The Weight of Sacrifice,” while a sculptor, Sabin Howard, a landscape architect, Phoebe Lickwar, and an architectural firm, GWWO, Inc., were also selected for the project. The federal Commission on Fine Arts, however, did not approve of the way the designs were to alter the park’s layout and appearance.
After modifications, the CFA finally gave its blessings to the project this past July, while the National Capitol Planning Commission has yet to weigh in. Despite this, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held last November. About half of the projected $40 million cost of the memorial is said to have been raised and there are hopes that a dedication can be made on Veterans Day 2021.