With plans for the new Frank Gehry-designed monument to Dwight D. Eisenhower in a temporary holding pattern, members and supporters of the National Civic Art Society met on Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening to drum up yet more opposition to the current design. The NCAS, along with Eisenhower’s granddaughters, has been leading opposition to the Gehry design, and their collective efforts have led to a delay in the approvals process for the memorial to the nation’s 34th president (a design review meeting tentatively scheduled for this month was scrapped after politicians on Capitol Hill got involved in the controversy).
Although they are in alignment about their view of Gehry’s work, the Eisenhowers and the NCAS are pursuing very different agendas, which makes them curious allies. Led by Susan Eisenhower, the family has taken a kitchen-sink approach to attacking Gehry, suggesting his plan for a parklike setting enclosed by metal tapestries will recall the aesthetics of totalitarianism, that the tapestries are too costly and not likely to hold up well to time and the weather, that Gehry’s program for the memorial’s symbolism doesn’t do justice to their grandfather and that the whole project isn’t “sustainable.” The NCAS, by contrast, is focused on Gehry, and an abiding hatred of everything its members think he stands for.
At the Kirby Center, an outpost of the conservative Hillsdale College near Union Station, the NCAS displayed well-crafted drawings of alternative proposals for the Eisenhower Memorial, solicited through an informal competition held last summer. The Kirby Center, devoted to “the principles and ideas that have made America free and prosperous,” offers internships and hosts town hall meetings, symposia and lectures, including recent talks devoted to “Obamacare’s Assault on Religious Liberty” and “Rules for Radicals: What Constitutional Conservatives Should Know About Saul Alinsky.” The reception and display of drawings (up through September) seems to align the conservative aesthetic values of the NCAS with the broader, partisan conservatism of Hillsdale.
The meticulous architectural renderings were arrayed in a classically designed room dominated by a large, figurative painting of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. On display were the prize winners in the competition, co-sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Institute for Classical Architecture & Art: Daniel Cook’s triumphal arch with accompanying monumental columns (First Prize); Sylvester Bartos and Whitley Esteban’s triumphal arch with flanking colonnade (Second Prize); Rob Firmin and Bruce Wolfe’s curving colonnade with flanking peristyles (tied for Third Place) and Francisco Ruiz’s temple-like structure set in a mixed-use urban redevelopment project (tied for Third Place).
Other entrants continued the basic themes of classical architecture, with variations on the Lincoln Memorial, extended temple structures dominated by enormous statues, a gigantic equestrian figure, yet more arches, tempiettos, colonnades and victory columns. It was a grand historical hodge-podge, with elements borrowed from the great chapters of imperial architecture over the past 2,500 years, mostly Roman and Napoleonic with a dash of 20th-century authoritarian bleakness. Cook’s winning design keeps the basic profile of the Arch of Titus in Rome, with a slightly reduced cap on top. But the modesty of the lower profile is undone by the enormous, far-larger-than-life-size statues of Eisenhower placed between the Corinthian columns on either side. C.J. Howard’s vision of a plaza with pentagon-shaped central element includes a “sculptural fountain of a D-Day amphibious vehicle” off to one side. The idea of a large vehicle of war retooled as a fountain reminds one immediately of Napoleon’s plans for a giant elephant fountain (a fearsome ancient war machine) on the Place de la Bastille (a plaster mock-up was unveiled in 1813 but was so dilapidated that it was torn down in 1846).