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.