It’s been 14 years since Congress determined that a memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower was needed, but the question of how to do right by Ike continues to confound.
An urban park, dreamed up by internationally acclaimed architect Frank Gehry, has yet to win approval from all the federal bodies required to sign off before construction can proceed. Fresh criticism leaves the team of professional staff — experts in presidential history, vast federal construction projects and architecture who work full time from a K Street office on advancing the project — trapped in a design phase that has already taken three and a half years.
“I’m struck by the lack, perhaps, of continuity over the years that we have been presenting,” said retired Brig. Gen. Carl W. Reddel, executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, outside the door of a Nov. 21 U.S. Commission of Fine Arts meeting, where he had heard another round of complaints about the proposed landscape and design elements.
During the meeting, CFA Commissioner Alex Krieger, a Harvard design professor, assessed the latest concept in terms of a “traditional first-semester architecture exercise.”
“This would fail,” Krieger declared.
Reddel, part of the EMC since its infancy, remains patient. He has read all 21 volumes of Eisenhower’s published papers and he knows nearly as much about the history of memorial construction as he knows about Ike’s legacy. In the case of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “it took 44 years to complete that memorial,” he reminded reporters, who asked if being sent back to the drawing board might stall progress indefinitely.
After establishing the EMC in 1999, Congress in 2002 authorized it to begin the site selection and design process for establishing a memorial to the 34th president, a five-star World War II general.
At the time, the National Park Service predicted seven years was a reasonable timeline for completion of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. More than a decade later, no construction permits have been issued for the four-acre site across Independence Avenue from the National Air and Space Museum, flanked to the south by the U.S. Department of Education Lyndon B. Johnson Building.
Under the legal blueprint of the Commemorative Works Act, a law that governs all monuments and memorials to be located on federal land in D.C., the commission needs site approval and design approval from three congressionally authorized commissions — the CFA, the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission and the National Capital Planning Commission — which have veto authority at each stage. After that approval, and when funds are in place, construction can begin. Upon completion, the commission will be dissolved and responsibility for maintenance and management shifts to the NPS.
By 2006 all three had OK’d the site.
But planners acknowledged from the beginning that filling the space, which consists of two separate parcels of land, would be uniquely challenging. It must be shaped into “a meaningful and functional public gathering place that also unifies the surrounding precinct,” according to design principles established by the NCPC.
After a design competition, the EMC awarded the contract for the memorial to Gehry’s firm, embracing his vision of bringing the heart of the Midwest, Eisenhower’s Abilene, Kan., boyhood home, to the heart of D.C.
“Abilene serves as a reminder that out of difficult circumstance come character, innovation, and even greatness,” Gehry wrote in a letter laying out his vision. “Eisenhower’s modest, pastoral roots are represented on the tapestries that surround the memorial and set the stage for the memorial core.”
The Eisenhower family has publicly criticized the design, and some members of Congress have shown resistance to proceeding with the current plan. Responding to the concerns, Gehry has continued to modify the design, and the EMC continues to brief the federal bodies on its latest blueprints.
In September, the commission backed out of an NCPC meeting upon realizing that it wouldn’t win preliminary design approval. At the November CFA meeting, the memorial commission brought along small-scale models of Gehry’s latest proposal for landscaping, statues, colonnades and tapestries.
To Teresita Fernández, another CFA commissioner, the spread looked like a “timid approach” that “lacks some sort of integrity in terms of volume.” She also called the reference to the prairie “very cryptic.”
The design also faced fresh scrutiny for the stainless steel material of the tapestry. Federal planners have questioned the durability and longevity of the material.
Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society and an outspoken design critic, revealed an NPS report that suggests two 45-square-feet tapestry panels on each of the three tapestries will need to be replaced every five years.
The EMC plans to be back in front of the CFA in January, with more details on its design. In the meantime, an EMC spokesperson said, the commission will review the comments and criticism.