The curious saga of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial took another strange turn on Tuesday, as the Eisenhower Memorial Commission abruptly pulled out of a National Capital Planning Commission meeting scheduled for Thursday.
Observers familiar with the controversy over the memorial were already anticipating fireworks, as new EMC member Bruce Cole attended his first meeting.
Cole, an art historian who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2001 to 2009, testified to Congress in March 2012 that architect Frank Gehry’s design for the memorial to the 34th president “not only fails, but fails utterly.”
In scathing commentaries published by the Washington Examiner and The Weekly Standard, Cole likened the clusters of statues and colonnades planned for the four-acre site to “a huge amusement park.”
Cole also sits on the board of advisers to the National Civic Art Society, a group pressing Congress to scrap Gehry’s design.
President Barack Obama named Cole to the commission, which oversees the project, last month.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said Obama’s appointment is “interesting and unique” and likely meant to send the message: “Before we do something, let’s make sure we’re doing it the right way.”
Cole was set to make his first public appearance as a commissioner on Thursday, when the NCPC is scheduled to offer its preliminary feedback on a design for the memorial. Cole told CQ Roll Call that he hoped to provide a “diverse opinion” from the other 10 commissioners on the board, but he said he did not intend to speak at Thursday’s meeting.
“My feeling is that it’s very important to have the monument to President Eisenhower but to make sure that that monument is fitting and proper . . . a reflection of his values and ideas,” he said.
But it’s unclear when Cole will attend his first meeting, as EMC Executive Director General Carl Reddel sent word on Tuesday that the group “decided to forego appearing before NCPC on Sept. 12 in the belief that the next few months would be better spent satisfying the concerns addressed” by the planning commission in a report released last week.
The report raised concerns about materials used in the memorial’s construction that would need to be addressed before the NCPC would grant preliminary approval for the design.
Backlash against the design, including the Eisenhower family’s criticism, inspired Bishop’s effort to scrap Gehry’s design, eliminate congressional funding for the commission and sunset the organization within three years of the measure’s enactment.
The House Natural Resources Committee advanced the bill on June 12, but no further action has been taken since a July 11 Congressional Budget Office report estimated it would cost $17 million to implement.
The commission has bristled at Bishop’s bill, and it continued to meet with Gehry to modify the design. The design up for review Thursday was submitted to the NCPC on Aug. 2 by the National Park Service on behalf of the commission, and it reflects months of refinements.
In an executive director’s recommendation that was to be presented at the meeting, the NCPC notes that the most recent submission “does not fully satisfy the design principles adopted by the commission as part of its 2006 site approval.”
Among the biggest complaints are blocked vantages of the Capitol from along Maryland Avenue and the durability, structural soundness and scope of large stainless steel tapestries proposed for the sides of the memorial.
The NCPC review also backs skepticism from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts about Gehry’s proposed tapestries. They noted that the CFA suggested eliminating the tapestries, out of concern that “their size and placement, may provide a first impression that was incongruent with Eisenhower’s characteristic humility as visitors approach the site.”
To gain the NCPC’s approval on preliminary building plans, the commission, which awarded Gehry the contract on the project in 2009, still needs to work with him on plans for pedestrian circulation, lighting, perimeter security and signage and make sure the plan preserves the integrity of the historic L’Enfant and McMillan plans for the city.
Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, said Tuesday after reviewing the NCPC’s recommendation that the agency “meticulously and devastatingly proves why the memorial must not be approved at this time.”
Members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission — Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., and Mike Thompson, D-Calif. — declined to comment on how Cole might affect the project.
Spokesmen for Thompson and Simpson both said the congressmen looked forward to working with all commission members.