What is a living memorial?

In honor of Memorial Day, this post will serve to discuss the concept of a “living memorial” and how the creation of such entities is truly interdisciplinary in nature, often requiring a diverse team of professionals including architects, artists, storytellers, historians, environmental graphic designers, as well as subject experts on the thing being memorialized.

While memorials are often associated with commemorative structures such as obelisks, statues, or triumphal arches, they may also include a living component. The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., for example, is a purely physical memorial in the form of an obelisk, while the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in D.C.  has both a physical element in its remarkable building and a dominant living component that includes a series of ongoing live theatrical performances honoring the late president’s legacy and love of the arts. A living memorial can thus be defined as a building or piece of civic infrastructure that is not predominantly sacred, but is instead a useful space whose function and activity honors the memorialized.[1] Living memorials can be seen in community buildings, highways, bridges, and forests, usually accompanied with interpretive plaques, that honor people, places, or events.

The concept of a living memorial in the United States first appeared in the early 20th century. During World War II, a debate broke out in the United States over whether post-war memorials should be traditional or living memorials.[2] Despite having supported traditional memorials during World War I, the architecture community’s sentiments reversed in favor of living memorials during World War II for their social and practical purpose.[3] In post-war America, the public opinion followed suit and support for living memorials prevailed. Living memorials were subsequently endorsed and funded by the New Deal as well as the Reorganization Act of 1939.[4]

The early 20th century saw the foundation of the Bureau of Memorial Buildings, an organization whose main purpose was to “serve as a clearinghouse of information and service in regard to planning, erecting, and administering community houses, auditoriums, recreation centers, and other ‘living memorials.’”[5] In January of 1919, the Bureau merged with the National Committee on Memorial Buildings, a group established to guide the national movement to erect community buildings as war memorials. Examples from this effort include plans for the Wayne County Memorial Community Building in Goldsboro, North Carolina, as well as series of community buildings in Frankford, Pennsylvania and Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.[6]

Early examples of living memorials include dedicated infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and forests. The first of these in the US was the national Blue Star Memorial highway, which was built in 1945 and dedicated to the armed forces that have defended the US throughout its history.[7] The National Garden Clubs, Inc., the parent organization for Blue Star Memorial Highways, sought to transform the highway from infrastructure to memorial through mass beautification and tree plantings along these roadways. Many state jurisdictions have no record of memorializing infrastructure until the Blue Star Memorial Highway system dedication, and this event jumpstarted a culture of memorializing individuals or groups by naming highways and bridges after them throughout the United States.[8] Today, civic infrastructure as living memorials is still a widely popular concept, and many agencies have a strong history, sometimes to a detriment, of swiftly memorializing roads and bridges. In 2003, the State of Connecticut memorialized over 30 roads and bridges, while the State of Georgia has expressed a desire to review the legislative process that approves and revisits the naming of such memorials.[9]

After learning of this concept, I bet you’ll never think the same about memorials and how they can function in so many difference ways. The takeaway here is that we can honor and remember people, places, and events in a variety of ways. One of those ways is honoring in the present tense and finding a connection to current life and culture.


[1] Andrew Shanken, “Planning Memory: Living Memorials in the United States during World War II.” The Art Bulletin 84(1) (2002) pp.130-147., http://www.jstor.org/stable/3177256?origin=JSTOR-pdf.

[2] Andrew Shanken, “Planning Memory: Living Memorials in the United States during World War II.” The Art Bulletin 84(1) (2002) pp.130-147., http://www.jstor.org/stable/3177256?origin=JSTOR-pdf

[3] Kenneth Reid, “Memorials? Yes-but No Monuments!,” Pencil Points 25 (May 1944): 43.

[4] Mills, Nicolause, Their Last Battle: The Fight For The National World War II Memorial (New York: Basic Books, 2009), XXV. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=GijXNKkE2AMC&pg=PR25&lpg=PR25&dq=%22living+memorial%22+building&source=bl&ots=ikD-64C9nq&sig=RheDbVCXkrcG45vMmeoPq-yP3EU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjPzYH9kdDXAhWRS98KHftrACA4ChDoAQhWMAk#v=onepage&q=%22living%20memorial%22%20building&f=false

[5] Bureau of Memorial Buildings of War Camp Community Service (New York: Bureau of Memorial Buildings of War Camp Community Service, 1919), 1 . Available online at: https://books.google.com/books?id=LaNAAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

[6] Bureau of Memorial Buildings of War Camp Community Service (New York: Bureau of Memorial Buildings of War Camp Community Service, 1919), 1-16. Available online at: https://books.google.com/books?id=LaNAAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

[7] “Blue Star Memorial Highways,” U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, accessed June 1 2018, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/blue01.cfm

[8] ”Memorial Highways and Bridges,” Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, Accessed 6/3/18, http://wwwsp.dotd.la.gov/Inside_LaDOTD/Divisions/Engineering/Traffic_Engineering/Memorial_Highways/Pages/default.aspx

[9] Betsy Witteman, “A road by any other name…,” The New York Times, 10/19/2003, Accessed 6/3/18,   http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/19/nyregion/a-road-by-any-other-name.html.

Russ Bynum, “Savannah wants segregationist governor’s name off bridge,” Athens Banner-Herald, 9/28/17, Accessed 6/3/18, http://onlineathens.com/stories/031002/new_0310020105.shtml#.WhQ07NUrKM8

[10] Jonathan Capehart, “Deborah Rutter on how the Kennedy Center is much more than ‘the honors’,” Washington Post, 2/1/18,  https://soundcloud.com/washington-post/deborah-rutter-on-how-the-kennedy-center-is-much-more-than-the-honors

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