The Strange Fight Over the Eisenhower Memorial
Prime real estate on the Mall, a world-famous architect—what could go wrong? Everything, it seems: The Eisenhower family hates Frank Gehry’s design and its ‘blizzard of tapestries.’
When the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission set about creating a memorial to the 34th president, it sought a design that would be visually startling and would inspire future generations of schoolchildren learning for the first time about the boy from the plains of Kansas who rose to great heights as the commander of U.S. troops on D-Day.
Honoring Eisenhower should be easy. He was a popular two-term president who drew little controversy, and depicting Ike’s accomplishments would be any architect’s dream. But for Frank Gehry, it’s been closer to a nightmare. The renowned architect has met with unrelenting criticism since he first unveiled his design in the summer of 2011: an 80-foot-tall giant stainless steel tapestry held in place by stone columns 10 feet in diameter, flanked by two smaller side tapestries, also supported by additional columns.
“A great monument is an exclamation point, not a question mark. A young person coming to the Frank Gehry memorial will be bewildered by a forest of eight-story columns and a blizzard of tapestries,” says Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a known critic of the Gehry memorial design before President Obama appointed him a member of the commission. “There’s no there there,” he says.
Obama named Cole last year as a replacement for David Eisenhower, Ike’s grandson, who resigned in solidarity with his two sisters, who from the start opposed the Gehry design for the 4-acre space at the base of Capitol Hill. It was an apparent effort by Obama to get a diversity of views on the commission, which tends to operate in lockstep with Gehry and is at war with the Eisenhower family. “You want a monument that is fitting and proper, and reflects his values. He was a man of great accomplishments but a man of great modesty,” says Cole. “This is a memorial to Gehry’s ego rather than to Ike’s accomplishments.”
On Thursday, the Eisenhower Commission goes before the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), whose approval is needed before construction can begin. This is not the first meeting, nor will it be the last, and much of the reaction along the way has been brutal. A statue of Ike as a young, barefoot boy, designed on human scale so middle schoolers could relate to him, is now imagined as a 17- or 18-year-old, not a 12-year-old. Bronze statues 9 feet tall depicting the military phase of Eisenhower’s life, in addition to one of Ike himself as president, were added in response to critics who said not enough attention was paid to Ike’s accomplishments.
Still, the tapestries remain the biggest hurdle to winning the necessary approval from the NCPC. Word is that the Eisenhower Commission will propose reducing the height and width of the smaller side tapestries, or even eliminating them altogether, while leaving the columns in place. Without the main tapestry, which depicts the Kansas plains on see-through braided, welded stainless steel cable, the memorial would no longer be a Gehry design, the architect’s allies say. As for the columns, they are Gehry’s nod to a city where columns are considered a classical, conservative feature.
Avowed critic Justin Shubow, president and chairman of the National Civic Art Society, says the scope and scale of the design is just “topsy-turvy in its symbolism,” with the tallest free-standing pillars in the world overshadowing a life-size statue of Eisenhower as a teenager. The Kansas landscape on the tapestries is not recognizable, he says: “It could be Kazakhstan.” The overall Gehry design, he adds, is “reminiscent of a parking garage he did in Santa Monica.”
The rhetoric has gotten toxic and increasingly personal as the process drags on without a resolution. The House zeroed out funding in its last budget; the Senate put back in $1 million, enough to keep the commission afloat in its K Street office. A fundraising firm hired to bring in the additional $100 million that will be needed if the Gehry design is approved has managed to raise just $400,000 so far, and without the help of the Eisenhower family, prospects for the additional funds appear dim.
“This memorial is effectively dead. This design will never get built,” says Shubow. “The challenge for opponents is: How do you kill a zombie?”
The Eisenhower family has consistently expressed concern about the sustainability of the tapestries and whether birds would build nests or wrappers from a nearby McDonald’s swept up in a high wind would get stuck and create an eyesore. The commission worked with the American Bird Conservancy, securing a letter that says the tapestries are bird friendly, and with the U.S. National Park Service, which says a once-a-year hose washing from a crane would be sufficient to clean the tapestries. Members of the commission jammed McDonald’s wrappers in the crevices of the design with their fingers, and the wrappers popped right out, alleviating that concern, they say. And after they did an ice and snow test to make sure ice wouldn’t fall from the tapestries and injure or even kill people, they added additional horizontal wires so the ice would hang in place until it melts.
Even with these assurances, the Eisenhower family remains opposed, pointing out in public testimony that there is no provision to make and store duplicates of these one-of-a-kind tapestries. They’re supposed to hold up for 100 or 200 years, the family has argued. What if they don’t, what then? What would be left, the tall pillars?
Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, told The Daily Beast that her family is respectful of the architect and the process, and is “truly humbled by the fact this is under way.” Nevertheless, many share their concerns about the Gehry concept. “If this is going to be a viable project, the voices from the public are extremely important,” she says. “We’re not the deciders here, nor should we be. The NCPC is responsible to the public and they should do so without having us buzzing on about what to do. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact we’re honoring Dwight Eisenhower, and he belongs to the nation.”
Susan Eisenhower can afford to take the high ground. Critics are so plentiful in Congress and on Capitol Hill that Shubow quips: “This is bipartisan. Everybody hates it.” A fallback position, adding an Eisenhower statue to the existing World War II Memorial, is already being discussed. That idea makes sense, but then again, this is Washington. Little is done here that makes sense.