Architect offers Eisenhower Memorial revisions that stress leadership over youth
Representatives of architect Frank Gehry unveiled changes to the proposed memorial honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower on Tuesday in an effort to quiet months of roiling criticism that the original failed to adequately reflect the scope of the 34th president’s achievements.
The new proposal, unveiled at an Eisenhower Memorial Commission meeting, retains the metal tapestries surrounding an urban park framework, but offers changes to the memorial core that the architect hopes will give greater prominence to Eisenhower’s stature and accomplishments.
Gone are bas-relief sculptures in favor of three-dimensional, heroic-size statues of Eisenhower as president and general, with space for his accomplishments on the stone blocks and quotations on lintels above them. The changes address some of the original design’s focus on Eisenhower’s modesty by putting forth a more muscular representation of his leadership.
In a letter to the commissioners read by Meaghan Lloyd, Gehry’s chief of staff, Gehry indicated that he had considered the feedback and criticism generated by his initial proposal. “I love this type of collaboration,” he wrote. “It is a process that I think is vital to the success of any endeavor and one that was necessary to make sense of sometimes contradictory characterizations of President Eisenhower.” The changes help “tell the story of Eisenhower with more dignity and power,” he said in the letter.
The Eisenhower family criticized the original design as invoking images of Soviet mythmaking and Nazi-era barbarism. The family did not attend the Tuesday meeting but is expected to weigh in on the new design before the commission meets again, possibly within a week. At that meeting, the commission is expected to decide whether to send the plan forward to the National Capital Planning Commission.
Planners hope to break ground on the four-acre memorial this year. Projected to cost an estimated $110 million, the memorial would be bisected by Maryland Avenue SW, just south of the Mall and would be situated in front of the Education Department and across from the National Air and Space Museum — buildings that tie in with Eisenhower’s legacy.
The design features large, see-through metal tapestries bordering three sides of the monument, depicting outdoor scenes from Eisehnower’s boyhood home of Abilene, Kan. The original core featured a young Eisenhower sculpted to look out onto bas-relief forms representing his dual military and presidential careers.
Much of the criticism from the family, conservatives and architectural traditionalists focused on the tapestries and their portrayal of Eisenhower’s humble roots. Critics thought the emphasis on his rural boyhood came at the expense of his later accomplishments as World War II Supreme Allied Commander and, especially, president.
Some attacked Gehry’s designs as too modern and self-aggrandizing. In December, Eisenhower’s grandson, David Eisenhower, resigned from the commission. At a March congressional subcommittee meeting, Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, critically compared Gehry’s design to Communist-era decorations that honored “Marx, Engels and Lenin.” The metal tapestries were likened to fences in Nazi death camps. She called for a total redesign.
Gehry’s supporters, including commission member Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), countered with a March letter from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission expressing its “unqualified support” for Gehry. The new and possibly final design features portrayals of Eisenhower with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division before the invasion of Normandy and the 1966 Yousuf Karsh “Elder Statesman” photo of Eisenhower as 9-foot statues. Proposed inscriptions detail his military accomplishments and the “Peace and Prosperity” of his presidency.
After the Tuesday meeting, critics said the new design still did not address key conceptual and aesthetic concerns. Justin Shubow, president of National Civic Art Society, says the memorial “still portrays Eisenhower as an unrecognizable boy or young man, which is at its core.”
Milton Grenfell, vice chairman of the civic art society and a classical architecture advocate, said the new design remained overscale, “with huge iron curtains,” and called the inscribed stones perched atop one another “willful” and “anti-aesthetic,” giving a feeling of “something that’s not going to last.” He said he hoped Congress would have a chance to weigh in.
But commissioners unanimously expressed support for moving forward. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he embraced the design. Eisenhower had been proud of his roots, Roberts said, and the memorial “brought Kansas to the National Mall.”
Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.), a commissioner, said members have “almost arrived at a consensus to go forward. I think we have a product worthy of the American people and worthy of this great hero.”
Commissioner Alfred Geduldig said the group had been working on the memorial for about 12 years “to make sure all bases are covered. We’re at a point, looking at these very impressive models, where we really can feel it.”
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