A woman from a nearby office enjoys a cup of coffee, a student is immersed in reading, a man in his late-60s pauses for a few moments to remember a fallen comrade. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza on Chicago’s Riverwalk is a unique commemorative space. Unlike many public memorials, which enjoin passers to stop, look up and remember, the memorial plaza invites them to remember within the space.

The plaza focuses on a memorial fountain with a slab of black granite bearing the names of almost 3,000 Illinois servicemen who died in Vietnam, arranged chronologically. The fountain is flanked by a terraced lawn where Chicagoans, descending the stairs from State Street, or strolling along the Riverwalk, can stop, and rest, and choose for themselves how, and whether to remember. It is a powerful, contemplative space, and it is unique among American memorials. It echoes Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, while simultaneously evoking the “memorials for use” – parks, schools, bridges – built in the 1940s and 1950s to mark the memory of the Second World War.

Yet this was accidental, or at least it was not by design. The memorial fountain was originally located in what the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin called “a glorified traffic island on Wacker Drive,” a location at the confluence of Wabash and Wacker with “all the serenity of a drag strip [that] unintentionally symbolized the shabby treatment Vietnam veterans received when they returned home.”

Indeed, Chicago’s Vietnam memorial was something of an afterthought; an orphan city project, undertaken with little public input, evidently in response to the growing profile of Lin’s monument as it was being built in Washington. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund slected Lin’s design – a wall of polished black marble engraved with the names of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam – in May 1981, and construction began the following November. Controversy over the design erupted in the summer of 1982, and shortly afterward the city of Chicago and the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology opened a design competition for the city’s own memorial.

It’s impossible to say how profoundly the designer was influenced by Lin or the controversy over the Wall; there appears to have been very little public comment. But the monument Mayor Jane Byrne dedicated before a crowd of about 200 veterans and their families on a chilly Veterans Day four months later – the same day the of the dedication of Washington memorial – bears a striking resemblance. It is clearly in conversation with Lin’s design, and meant to redress what some critics believed to be its shortcomings.

The Tribune reported that the city’s veterans got “an overdue ‘thank you’” on that day, but Chicago’s memorial fountain, stranded on a strip of land surrounded by city traffic, never seemed entirely adequate. As Kamin noted, a traffic island is hardly an ideal place for contemplation. Only in 2005, in the wake of a new war, and in the context of a revolution of memorial practice, did the fountain and the names move to their new home as part of a renovation of Chicago’s downtown riverfront.

The memorial plaza is tucked into a small corner of the Riverwalk, now supplemented with a sculpture of the Vietnam Service Medal by Gary Tillery – a Vietnam veteran – set into the wall behind the names. The space feels more capacious than it is. Engraved in the stone wall above the names, the phrase “Chicago Remembers” is both descriptive and prescriptive.

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