Battle over Eisenhower memorial pits tradition, innovation

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 20, 2014 

— It’s a small, contentious piece of real estate on the National Mall, itself the most visible and most valuable green space in the nation’s capital.

The dispute is over the future of a 4-acre rectangular tract that sits across from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and directly in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building, within sight of the U.S. Capitol. It does not have a lot of curb appeal, divided diagonally by a small road dotted with parking meters, bordered by sidewalks and punctuated by scrubby greenery.

But it’s what it’s supposed to become _ a monument to the late President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied forces in World War II _ that’s started a war among his admirers, lawmakers, the commission behind the memorial, the celebrated architect Frank Gehry, city planning and art experts, and the Eisenhower family. It will, in all likelihood, be the last memorial built on the mall, with stakeholders and lawmakers agreeing that the two-mile stretch from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol is maxed out.

At issue is the memorial’s design, a unique interpretation that features bas-relief sculptures based on two famous photographs: one of Eisenhower in uniform on D-Day addressing the troops, and the other of him working on legislation as president. Perched between them is a statue of a young West Point Ike sitting on a ledge. It’s all framed by huge woven metal tapestries on three sides _ depicting trees and landscapes of Kansas, his boyhood home _ that are held by 10 massive 80-foot-tall stone columns.

It’s the tapestries _ the monument’s “piece de resistance,” which critics call “scrims” and which make it so distinctive _ that have fueled the debate and brought the Eisenhower memorial to a crossroads. Critics have called for a new design competition, supporters have fumed at the time already lost and Congress has cut all construction and half the administrative funding until there’s a resolution.

A key approving agency, the National Capital Planning Commission, voted April 3 against letting the project go forward because it didn’t meet three of seven required design elements, particularly because the columns and tapestries are so large they would impede sight lines to the Capitol.

That didn’t kill the memorial, but it’s on hold while everyone waits to see how Gehry and the congressionally created Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission respond at the next planning commission meeting, on June 5. The planning commission voted to require a status report on the memorial every two months.

The vision for the memorial comes from Gehry, the Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect who’s famous for his innovative structures, especially his signature piece, the billowing titanium Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. His design for the memorial was selected in 2010. In an interview Tuesday with McClatchy, he declined to talk about the memorial.

“It’s a trying time,” was all he would say.

Previously, Gehry has said he sees the tapestries as a central, storytelling feature of the memorial that celebrates Eisenhower’s modest roots.

“He didn’t beat his chest and say, ‘I won the war,’ ” Gehry said at a symposium after the design was chosen.

Eisenhower commission spokeswoman Chris Cimko wouldn’t say whether commission members would attend the June 5 planning commission meeting.

“We have to look at the design and see how we can meet the objections,” she said, describing them as minor. “We may have private meetings.”

After the April 3 decision, the Eisenhower commission said in a news release that it would review the ruling, which it found “surprising.” The Eisenhower commission noted that it had answered the planning commission’s challenges about the metal durability of the tapestries.

The Eisenhower commission seemed last year to recognize the scope of the resistance and quietly added an advisory panel led by Frank Fahrenkopf, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and Gen. P.X. Kelley, a former Marine Corps commandant who chaired the American Battle Monuments Commission.

“We were asked to get this thing off center,” Fahrenkopf said in an interview. “There are more than three sides involved: the commission, those opposed to Gehry and those that don’t like the design. We’ve met with everyone on all sides of the issue. We’ve got to get this done before there aren’t any veterans left” from World War II.

Fahrenkopf, who’s trying to broker a compromise, said of the design, “There’s going to have to be adjustments made.”

The memorial has its fans, including Eisenhower’s hometown of Abilene, Kan., which passed a resolution in March endorsing the design, noting that it takes account of his boyhood in the Sunflower State.

But a powerful voice in the debate, the Eisenhower family, doesn’t see it that way.

Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter of the 34th president who’s a well-known author and consultant on international issues, has been at the center of the opposition.

She said in an interview that the tapestries were “the most problematic” part of the memorial. “If the scrims were removed as a design element, you’d have an internal monument and I think it would be acceptable.”

While things are at an “impasse,” she said, “my family stands ready to talk to anybody.”

The family has withdrawn fundraising support for the design because it finds the vision too grandiose to honor what family members and friends describe as a modest and humble man.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the chairman of a House Natural Resources Committee panel with oversight of public lands, has authored a bill, approved by the committee, to terminate the current Eisenhower commission and start the process over.

“It’s those scrims,” said Bishop, when asked about his resistance to the design. “It’s a non-starter. They seem to be the legacy Gehry wants to have. It is the scrims that almost everybody gags at.”

The statues, a more traditional style of memorial, have support, he said. Like most of the critics, Bishop said he wasn’t trying to impose his taste on others, but that there should be a consensus on a design.

The legislation for a memorial to Eisenhower was first approved in 1999 and is now projected to cost more than $140 million. Ever since the Eisenhower commission chose Gehry’s entry, the artist has been the lightning rod for criticism.

He originally wanted the statue in the middle of the memorial to be of Ike as a “barefoot boy,” based on a speech that Eisenhower made when he’d returned to his hometown. That interpretation sparked so much irritation, especially from the family, over what seemed to be a diminishing of the president and not showcasing him for his accomplishments, that Gehry made him older _ Ike as the West Point cadet he had been.

Will there now, after the rejection of Gehry’s design, be a radical reworking, a slight change or will the memorial commission dig in? Would the memorial pass muster with the two side panels removed and only the large tapestry framing the statues?

Justin Shubow, the president of the National Civic Art Society, the most outspoken of all the critics, wants the entire project scrapped and a new competition resulting in a more traditional memorial.

“Gehry could take out the columns and we’d be left with this rinky-dink memorial core,” he told McClatchy. “The scope and scale is totally topsy-turvy,” he said. “The memorial is still about Gehry. It’s all about the architecture.”

There’s even opposition on the Eisenhower commission itself, from the newest member, Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who told McClatchy the design was in a “death spiral.”

“Unless this behemoth is replaced quickly by a more fitting design truly reflective of Ike’s modesty and humility, no memorial will be built and millions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars will be squandered,” he said.

It will almost certainly never be built as it’s now configured.

Email: mrecio@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @maria_e_recio.

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