Darrell Issa spent 15 minutes Thursday afternoon strolling the four-acre site in Southwest Washington slated to become a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The California Republican found the plot adjacent to the headquarters of the Department of Education to be in "awful, awful" condition, he later told the National Capital Planning Commission. To get the ball rolling on the project that will transform the blighted federal property, the House Oversight and Government Reform chairman said he is ready to support a revised version of the contentious Eisenhower Memorial design by architect Frank Gehry.
"We can't go back to square one," Issa told the commission, acknowledging a scathing report from the House Natural Resources Committee and objections from many stakeholders, including those who knew the 34th president personally. Members of Congress have suggested restarting the design process, but Issa rejects that idea based on cost and time. "We can't throw away 15 years," he said. After an earlier plan was rejected by the NCPC in April, partly out of concern about blocked vantages of the Capitol from along Maryland Avenue, the Gehry team eliminated two massive stainless steel tapestries on the east and west sides of the park. Replacing the western tapestry with an 80-foot column opens the view of the Capitol by more than 40 feet, explained Gehry Partners' Craig Webb, as he clicked through a slideshow at the NCPC headquarters.
Comments by presidential appointees to the NCPC suggested the Eisenhower Memorial Commission might be making progress on winning preliminary approval for the design, but no votes were taken Thursday. Still, there was plenty of skepticism about the revised plan.
Ellen McCarthy, acting director of the D.C. Office of Planning, said the columns reminded her of "latter scenes of 'Planet of the Apes.'"
General Services Administration's Mina Wright, said one of the "biggest challenges" for the design team would be holding the two triangles of land that make up the rectangular site together. She suggested more refinement of the landscape plan to stop the edges from "just bleeding into the street."
Gehry may not be happy with the compromise plan himself, Issa suggested. The congressman sat down with the architect during the August recess to look over other blueprints.
"I get the feeling he didn't like this one either," Issa said. Later he clarified, "I'm not suggesting we start this memorial, but we start the design with a staged concept" then let architects and designers finalize. "We have an obligation after 15 years to get this thing going," he said.
Even if the design makes it through the various stages of federal approval, it faces significant fundraising obstacles. Taxpayers have poured $65 million into the project, by some estimates, Congress has cut appropriations and private donations are falling short of the target.
Wright suggested that if the EMC had an approved design "fundraising will become something that is not nearly as challenging as it is now." She said it is hard to raise money when people cannot imagine or envision the change. "There must be some structure."