Susan Eisenhower denounces designs for presidential monument

Susan Eisenhower appeared before a congressional committee hearing Tuesday to denounce designs by architect Frank Gehry for a memorial honoring her grandfather, the 34th president of the United States. She compared Gehry’s proposals for large metal tapestries that depict Dwight D. Eisenhower’s boyhood home of Abilene, Kan., to Communist-era decorations that honored “Marx, Engels and Lenin.” She likened large columns that will be used to hang the metal scrims to “missile silos,” mentioned Ho Chi Minh and Mao, and argued that Holocaust survivors were affronted by the similarity of the tapestries to the fences of Adolf Hitler’s death camps.

Representing the Eisenhower family, she called on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which has overseen the process of planning and designing a memorial since authorized by Congress in 1999, to go back and start over.

“We now believe that a redesign is the only way to make this memorial acceptable to the American people,” she said, of the proposed monument that will sit at the intersection of Maryland and Independence avenues just south of the Mall. Gehry’s design features a parklike square with open vistas of the Capitol, bordered on three sides by large metal tapestries hanging from 10 stone columns.

Members of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands listened to complaints from the Eisenhower family, and from independent advocates of traditional architecture, who are offended by what they perceive as modern tendencies in the Gehry design. But while the committee chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), asked pointed questions about the design process and selection of Gehry, few seemed eager to entirely derail the memorial, which received a conceptual green light from the Commission of Fine Arts in September and was scheduled to break ground later this year. Ranking Democratic member Raul M. Grijalva (Ariz.) said he didn’t think “this subcommittee, the full committee or Congress is the appropriate place to litigate a memorial design or a potential family dispute.”

Over the past few weeks, a movement has been growing among architectural traditionalists and conservative critics to scuttle the design created by ­Gehry, who was selected as the memorial architect in 2009. The National Civic Art Society, a small nonprofit dedicated to “the restoration of the classical tradition to its rightful primacy in our nation’s capital,” has made opposing Gehry’s design part of a larger philosophical attack on the legacy of modernism, post-modernism and anything that smacks of avant-garde art, going all the way back to architects such as Louis Sullivan and Le Corbusier.

Justin Shubow, president and chairman of the society, has issued a 154-page attack on Gehry and his design, criticizing the architect for his association with artists such as the theater director Robert Wilson (whom he excoriates for tampering with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”) and the renowned sculptor Charles Ray (whose work, Shubow claims, “sexualizes children”). The document is repetitious, filled with innuendo, and attacks established artists for vague associations with movements or ideas the author deems immoral. Nonetheless, it has received a remarkable amount of attention, offering talking points for conservative columnists and critics.

Gehry’s memorial has substantial defenders beyond the members of the Eisenhower Commission, an entity that may now be wavering in its enthusiasm for his work. Architect David M. Childs, who has served as chairman of the two most important design review groups in Washington, the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, submitted a letter of support to the subcommittee, arguing that Gehry’s design “quite appropriately builds upon classical tradition, but, as the best design always does, expresses it within contemporary interpretation, thus making it relevant to our current culture.”

But it is a difficult memorial to support for many people who would ordinarily be enthusiastic about bringing Gehry’s work to the nation’s capital. Fond memories of Ike as a strong leader and a modest man don’t necessarily translate into passionate enthusiasm for building a new memorial, especially given that Eisenhower is already memorialized at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and that his greatest accomplishment (winning the war in Europe in 1945) is honored at the grandly overscale National World War II Memorial.

Underneath the debate about whether the Gehry design is appropriate is larger dissatisfaction with the entire process of building memorials, and deep disagreement about the basic work that memorials should do and what they should look like. Recent design failures, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and the proposed visitors center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, have amplified long-standing calls for a meaningful and binding moratorium on new memorials on or near the Mall.

The involvement of the Eisenhower grandchildren also underscores the inherent problem of memorializing a civic figure too soon after his death. The Eisenhowers no more own the legacy of their grandfather than any soldier who served under him, or any citizen a century from now reading about him in a history book. When Susan Eisenhower said Tuesday that her grandfather “was well known not to have much care for modern art,” she introduced two irrelevant criteria for judging Gehry’s work: her memories of her grandfather, and her grandfather’s dislike of contemporary design. Memorials aren’t designed to appeal to their subjects, but to represent their subjects in meaningful ways to future generations.

It’s not clear whether Congress will reopen the process, especially given that eight of the Memorial Commission’s 12 members serve in Congress. And while there has been growing momentum for revisiting the Gehry design among traditionalists and culture warriors, concern about the design hasn’t coalesced into a coherent critique. Some have argued that the design isn’t sufficiently traditional and grand to honor the magnitude of Eisenhower’s accomplishment, while others, including Bruce Cole, a former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, argue that it is too grandiose.

Susan Eisenhower tended to support both views in her written testimony to the subcommittee. Taking issue with a proposal to include a statue of Eisenhower as a boy or young man, among representations of his military and presidential careers, she argued that it wasn’t impressive enough to connect with children who might visit the memorial.

“Children are not impressed by children,” she wrote. “They want to be Super Heroes.” But she also said, “My family has repeatedly expressed its desire to see something simple and in keeping with Eisenhower’s character and values,” adding that her family had argued for a statue on the grounds of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Others have attacked the process whereby the commission chose Gehry as designer, arguing it wasn’t open, transparent or democratic. Supporters of the memorial, including Reddell, and representatives from the U.S. General Services Administration (which advised and assisted the commission with design selection) and the National Park Service (which will be the memorial’s steward) stoutly defended the selection process, which followed long-standing precedents used by the GSA for large federal projects.

The commission began by inviting architecture firms first to submit their qualifications, then selected seven firms (among 44 that responded) to participate in interviews. A shortlist of four firms was then chosen to submit actual proposals.

Architects who have worked with the process argue that while it doesn’t create a pool of potentially hundreds of designs, it helps ensure that the firms that advance to the final stage of the competition are competent to realize their plans on budget, on time, and within the internecine regulatory and political process that bedevils all major projects in the monumental core of Washington, D.C.

The design process has reached the almost inevitable “kitchen sink” stage of public discussion. Bruce Cole called it “an amusement park,” taking issue with its use of interactive features to teach visitors about Eisenhower’s legacy. Susan Eisenhower worried about a “symbolic affront” to the Lyndon Johnson Department of Education Building to the south of the memorial site, which would be substantially obscured by the tapestries. The written testimony of witness Rodney Mims Cook Jr. touted his own design for an Eisenhower Memorial that would feature a 178-foot traditional column, eight feet taller than a column dedicated to Lord Nelson in London because “hierarchy calls for a taller column for the General.”

Gehry, the most significant architect working in the United States in the past half-century, was unable to attend the hearing but submitted a letter in which he disputed some of the major concerns about the design, including the longevity and cost of maintaining the tapestries. He said he welcomed further dialogue with the Eisenhower family and was open to changes.

“If the [commission] and the family conclude that the sculpture of young Eisenhower is an inappropriate way to honor him,” Gehry wrote, “then I will be open to exploring other options with them.”

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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