Eisenhower Memorial opens, ending 20 years of planning strife on Capitol Hill

Project pitted Congress, family, architect against one another

People look at the newly opened Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington on Friday. Designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, the memorial honors Eisenhower’s legacy as supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II and as the 34th president. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
People look at the newly opened Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington on Friday. Designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, the memorial honors Eisenhower’s legacy as supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II and as the 34th president. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 18, 2020 at 4:53pm

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial opened to the public Friday, just off the National Mall in Washington, closing out two decades of drama, feuds and funding fights over the tribute to the 34th president.

First approved by Congress in 1999, the memorial cost a total of $145 million, according to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. Some $15 million of that was raised through private donors and the rest was appropriated by Congress.

The memorial is intended to honor Eisenhower’s legacy as the supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II and his eight-year presidency and sits just south of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It was supposed to open in May, but the ceremony and opening were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The dual centerpieces of the memorial are two limestone and bronze scenes — one of Eisenhower as a top military general and another of him as president. There is also a statue of a young Eisenhower sitting with his knees folded to his chest, looking pensive.

Brenda Pennington and Mary Jennings were at the memorial Friday afternoon, among the first of the public visitors to walk through the new venue.

The sisters, who live locally, had seen media coverage of the memorial and wanted to experience it for themselves.

“I heard his granddaughters talk about it, the whole story about the kid,” said Pennington, referencing the statue of a young Eisenhower. “I’ve lived here for many, many years, so any new memorial and I’m out here.”

Towering above the limestone and bronze scenes stands a massive 450-foot-wide and 60-foot-tall stainless steel tapestry that, according to volunteers and guides, depicts the cliffs of Normandy, France, that American soldiers had to scale during the D-Day invasion.

The memorial is located just off the National Mall in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Visitors on Friday asked National Park Service rangers about what was featured in the tapestry, which is somewhat abstract in daylight, but becomes clearer when lit from below at night. A photograph of the cliffs is included in a brochure, making clear what the tapestry represents.

That design was the result of several revisions, driven in part by opposition from the Eisenhower family and lawmakers who have said they could not endorse the project without the family’s approval.

Park rangers, volunteers and employees with the Trust for the National Mall wore “I Like Ike” face masks, a nod to Eisenhower’s presidential campaign slogan. The timely souvenirs were given out by the commission, a park ranger told CQ Roll Call.

Employees behind the counter at the memorial’s gift shop had to tell one visitor after another that the face masks weren’t for sale.

“Not yet, but maybe someday,” said one woman working the register.

Eisenhower took a little more than a year to plan and execute Operation Overlord, the largest military invasion in history and the turning point of World War II, culminating in the Allied landing on D-Day at Normandy. But it took the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, Congress, architect Frank Gehry and the Eisenhower family nearly 20 times as long to bring his memorial to fruition.

The memorial was first approved by Congress in 1999 and cost a total of $145 million, according to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

It was a decade before a designer was selected and even that early choice was steeped in conflict. The commission chose then-81-year-old Frank Gehry. He was not the first choice of some in the Eisenhower family, and critics pointed out how no minority-owned firms were included in the nearly 50 finalists considered.

Gehry’s initial design was not popular with Eisenhower’s family and some key lawmakers. In January 2012, members of the family sent a letter to the National Capital Planning Commission strenuously objecting to Gehry’s design for the memorial and asking for it to be stopped.

The family did not see the original design as adequately commemorating Eisenhower’s role as president and leader of Allied forces during World War II, instead focusing on his roots as a “barefoot boy from Kansas.”

The design became the subject of a 2012 congressional hearing, and the project was nearly halted. That year, the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee advanced a spending bill that zeroed out funding for the project for fiscal 2013.

Members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission — among them eight members of Congress ­— had hoped Gehry’s revisions to his original design would assuage concerns and bring a drawn-out process to a conclusion.

But for the next few years, federal funding for the project served as a bargaining chip as the design negotiations between the commission, Gehry and others continued. Appropriators even opened official investigations into the planning of the memorial.

There was also turbulence on the commission itself. Kansas Republican Jerry Moran quit the commission in September 2014, followed by a fellow senator, Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed, in October of the same year. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican and World War II veteran, took over as finance chairman and made emotional pleas to complete the memorial before he and other WWII vets died.

Family representatives gave their blessing in 2016, after the designers agreed to scrap an earlier rendition of the tapestry that called for a pastoral landscape of Eisenhower’s hometown of Abilene, Kansas. The project finally broke ground in November 2017.

“We persevered, we persevered, and then we persevered, the Eisenhower family and with the many agencies here in Washington that you have to go through, not to mention the appropriations and the spending,” Kansas GOP Sen. Pat Roberts told C-SPAN on Thursday. “And then we finally got it right.”

Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.