Hearing on Eisenhower memorial ramps up controversy on project’s vision


Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, testifies on Capitol Hill. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Contrasting visions on the size, scale and scope of a memorial to honor President Dwight D. Eisenhower characterized a congressional hearing Tuesday, along with questions about whether to fund the original design or restart the entire process.

The hearing was the latest round in the controversy, which has intensified in the past two years of the almost 14-year project. Of the $60 million appropriated for the memorial, more than $37.7 million has been spent or obligated.

The hearing came almost a year after significant changes to architect Frank Gehry’s design were unveiled in attempt to reach consensus among critics of the concept, including the Eisenhower family and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which has approved the plans. Legislation introduced by the House Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulation calls for a new design competition and a three-year extension of the memorial-site designation, which is set to expire this year.

The Gehry design includes metal tapestries with scenes of Eisenhower’s boyhood Kansas home surrounding an urban park framework with heroic-size statues of Eisenhower as president and World War II general. It would be bisected by Maryland Avenue SW and stand across from the National Air and Space Museum.

The family “thinks the design is flawed in concept and overreaching in scale,” testified Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the 34th president. She read a letter from her father, John S.D. Eisenhower, that said the memorial tried to “tell multiple stories” in a way best left to museums. Eisenhower said she had been “saddened” by the family’s relationship with the commission, which she said moved forward with its plans despite the family’s decade-long concerns. She requested a halt to funding and a project redesign.

Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, who said his organization defends the classical tradition of public art and architecture, questioned the durability of the design materials as well as the estimated $142 million cost.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), a committee member, called the design a “monstrosity.”

In response to family and public criticism that surfaced in late 2011, Brig. Gen. Carl W. Reddel, executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, testified that it had paused in the approval process and had met with family members. He also said Gehry had already made design changes that addressed a number of objections. The project had strong supporters and critics, Reddel said, and “the historical record suggests that great, iconic architecture is controversial.”

Saying, “I sort of like the design,” committee member Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) said real improvements had been made, and he voiced concerns over whether the project could be redesigned within three years. He questioned panelists as to whether they would be mollified by additional changes. The back-and-forth of warring visions could be endless, Holt said, and “the only thing that’s worse than art designed by a committee is art designed by a congressional committee. I hope we can find a way to bring this to general acceptance.”

After the hearing, Reddel suggested that conflicting visions for the memorial stemmed, in part, from differing historical perceptions of the president. He said the commission planned to move forward with the next step, seeking the approval of the National Capital Planning Commission.

“Congress decided there should be a memorial to Ike, and we’ve got to work to get it done,” Reddel said.

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