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National Capital Planning Commission Rejects Frank Gehry's Design for Eisenhower Memorial

Issa says Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial has an immodesty that is unbefitting of the plainspoken 34th president. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Members of Congress past and present ventured into the National Capital Planning Commission's headquarters last week to weigh in on the long-delayed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial project.  

Former Rep. Leonard Boswell came from Iowa to encourage planners to move forward. The 80-year-old Democrat and Army veteran said he would like to see the memorial done before he dies, and called the project a “great tribute to veterans.”  

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., also ventured downtown for the NCPC's first formal action on architect Frank Gehry's design. Schock believes the park, which is to be framed by large metal tapestries at the intersection of Maryland and Independence avenues Southwest, is not consistent with other D.C. memorials. He said it resembles “a 4-acre theme park without a coherent theme," and urged the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to restart the design process. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., an ex officio member of NCPC, also criticized the plan meant to pay tribute to Ike's humble Kansas roots and achievements as a World War II hero. Issa believes the current plan doesn't "make enough" of some of his domestic accomplishments as the 34th president, such as desegregating schools.  

"If I had my way, the tapestry submitted would not be the tapestry that we build," said Issa, who suggested the design is immodest and unbefitting of Eisenhower's humility and plainspokenness.  

Following the comments, the NCPC rejected the design and requested Gehry revise the scale and configuration of the tapestries. By a 7-3 vote, the commission formally disapproved preliminary site and building plans. Concerns were raised that 80-foot-tall limestone clad columns supporting the tapestries would diminish views of the Capitol along Maryland Avenue Southwest and would not complement surrounding buildings, streets and trees.  

“It is a rare opportunity to add a new presidential memorial to our nation’s capital," NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant Jr. said. "There is widespread unanimity on the need for, and value of, a memorial honoring the remarkable accomplishments of President Eisenhower in a fitting and lasting manner. In doing so, we also have an opportunity to create a new urban public space that contributes to the capital’s historic and symbolic form and the city’s vitality."  

Representatives from the National Park Service and the General Services Administration voiced support for Gehry’s design, but were outnumbered in the final vote.  

At Issa's request, the NCPC also directed the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to return every two months, beginning in June, to provide updates on design modifications.  

“As somebody who has grown to greatly admire President Eisenhower, I know he was a man who believed you had to come as you are, bring what you have and get the job done,” Issa said in a statement following the vote. “I don’t view today’s vote as a rejection of the proposed design, but rather an opportunity to have the dialogue necessary to resolve these remaining issues once and for all.”  

Issa suggested frequent updates might make it easier to convince Congress to restore funding. For fiscal 2014, Interior appropriators zeroed out construction funding , halved the memorial commission's operating budget and urged the parties involved to work "as partners" on the project now 15 years in the making. The congressman said he could not object to his colleagues defunding the project when it seemed like there was no progress.  

Schock thinks asking the commission to return every two months is a positive step.  

“I think anybody funding this project in the private sector would require updates at least every two months, if not every month or once a week,” he told CQ Roll Call.  

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission issued a statement calling the NCPC's decision "surprising" and pointing out that another federal body charged with overseeing the project, the Commission on Fine Arts, had given its preliminary approval to the design.  

"For well over a year, we have endeavored to work closely with NCPC staff and leadership in an effort to ensure that today’s review of the design would fully address any and all of NCPC’s stated concerns," commission spokeswoman Chris Cimko said in a statement. "In the coming days, the EMC will work with NCPC to determine the best possible path forward to create a memorial to President and General Eisenhower."