Support for a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower has not waned in the 15 years since Congress authorized a public tribute to the 34th president.
But what the memorial will look like has been much debated.
The project faces a major crossroad this week over its controversial Frank Gehry design, which uses woven steel tapestries strung on 80-foot columns to depict the modest Kansas roots of the decorated soldier and statesman.
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission on Wednesday will review two approaches, including one that removes most of these elements. If that plan is selected, Gehry informed the commission, he will ask for his name to removed.
The famed architect revised his original design after harsh criticism from one of the two government agencies that must approve the plans before construction can begin. The downsized version unveiled two weeks ago seemed to strike the right balance, but a recent flurry of letters between the warring camps suggests even this compromise is dead.
As the battle erupts again, here’s a cheat sheet on the project’s history, and its uncertain future.
How did we get here?
Congress approved the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial in 1999 to pay tribute to the 34th president and World War II general. A four-acre parcel of land on Independence Avenue, between the Air and Space Museum and the Department of Education, was set aside. A design competition was held, and Gehry’s firm was selected.
The law that regulates monuments and memorials requires that both the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) approve the design and construction plans. The CFA gave preliminary approval to Gehry’s vision in 2011, and it reiterated its support again last year.
But the NCPC has been tougher to please. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission initially delayed presenting the Gehry design to the commission, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and then an April presentation failed to get the required backing.
Meanwhile, a congressional committee report released in July detailed cost overruns and questioned the process of selecting Gehry as the memorial’s architect.
Despite describing the report as “scathing,” Issa seemed determined to move the project forward. At a meeting early earlier this month, he voiced support for the downscaled model, in large part because: “We can’t go back to square one.
“Starting from scratch, somehow we will get to another opportunity for it to not be perfect for someone,” he said.
Although Issa seemed supportive, last weekend he sent a letter to the memorial commission seeking an alternative to the downsized design that would remove all tapestries and columns. He wants to see a plan that preserved “the core” of the park, including a collection of statues and bas-reliefs.
Brig. Gen. Carl Reddel, executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, responded with surprise but said he would comply with Issa’s request. In a letter to his commissioners, he said two plans would be presented.
“Gehry Partners has indicated that it will not present or associate its name with a design that does not include the tapestry and column elements,” Reddel wrote.
Ike’s granddaughters and vocal critics — Susan and Anne Eisenhower — weighed in Monday, writing their own letter to the memorial commission saying Gehry’s compromise design “does not address the major problems identified by many stakeholders, including our family.” They propose “a simpler design that encompasses the memorial core that has already been developed,” or a “complete redesign.”
What happens now?
Reviewing and discussing the alternatives will dominate Wednesday's meeting of the 12-member memorial commission, according to Reddel. Three newly appointed members will attend their first meeting, including Bruce Cole, who has been critical of the proposed design.
“It hardly seems possible, but Gehry’s ‘compromise’ design has made things even worse,” he said.
If the commissioners select Gehry’s compromise, it will be presented to the NCPC on Oct. 2 for preliminary approval. If they instead favor a design that jettisons the scrim and colonnade, then modifications would be required before bringing it to the NCPC, Reddel stated in his letter.
Will it ever be built?
Although early estimates predicted the memorial would be built by 2007, the commission now hopes to have it completed in 2017, according to its Web site.
If the NCPC approves either of the two new versions, the chosen design will likely need to go back to the Commission of Fine Arts for its support. In addition, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission must raise the money required for construction. The current design is estimated to cost $140 million. If it changes, so might its price tag.
The memorial has spent $25 million of the $63 million in government funding it has received, according to the commission spokeswoman. Less than $8 million has been paid to Gehry’s firm, she said, noting that the architect has not charged for his time.
The commission was expected to raise $35 million for the project but has received less than $500,000 in donations, in part because of the design issues, the spokeswoman said.