After 14 years, the last several of which have been marked by criticism from the Eisenhower family and architectural traditionalists, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission voted to move forward with the Frank Gehry-designed memorial to the 34th president.
The unanimous vote shows the commission remains committed to the $110 million Gehry project, which would bisect Maryland Avenue SW and be situated across from the National Air and Space Museum and in front of the Education Department. It allows the architect to take his plans to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts next month and the National Capital Planning Commission in early fall for review and approval.
The vote came after Gehry presented the latest changes in the design, which included the restoration of bas-relief sculptures that had been eliminated in an earlier design and alterations in the statues of a young Dwight D. Eisenhower and of Eisenhower as president and World War II general. Excerpts from Eisenhower’s Guildhall Address, delivered after the allied victory in Europe and considered his most important speech, were also approved for the memorial.
In frank and sometimes emotional terms, board and advisory committee members talked about the need to move forward and to ensure that Eisenhower is properly memorialized. Gen. P.X. Kelley, who is chairman of the advisory board and helped build the Korean and World War II memorials, called the Gehry design “spectacular,” saying young soldiers returning from tours overseas would be impressed and inspired.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he had worked on the memorial for more than a dozen years, putting in countless hours. He invoked the late senator Daniel K. Inouye, the vice chairman of the commission, who died in December, saying Inouye had told him: “I want you to carry this project forward.”
“I’ve tried very hard to be an honest broker” and get input from all sides, Roberts said. “It would be a real tragedy if the memorial was not built.”
Leonard L. Boswell, a former commissioner and vice chairman of the advisory committee, said the Eisenhower memorial was unlike the stately, imposing Lincoln or Washington memorials, made from stone, marble and other traditional monument materials. But “Eisenhower was an exceptional guy,” he said. His career as general and president in the modern age was complex. “Let’s take the hill! Let’s get this over with. Let’s see this monument to one of the greatest Americans who ever lived” built, Boswell urged.
Last week, the House passed a bill to scrap the design and start over with new commission members. At the meeting, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) acknowledged strident disagreements and conflict over the Gehry design and read a letter from Eisenhower's granddaughter, Susan, who has been the project’s most vocal critic. The letter decried the “bitterly controversial” Gehry design and warned that moving forward without the support of the family could jeopardize project funding and fundraising.
Commission Chairman Rocco C. Siciliano said he had spent 10 years as president of the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute and a lifetime making sure differing viewpoints were considered. The Eisenhower family “deserves to be heard, but does not deserve to be obeyed. I want to be very clear there is no attempt made here to railroad, or walk over outside opinions, particularly those of the family,” Siciliano said.
Gehry, who was not at last year’s commission meeting when changes were unveiled in the wake of roiling Eisenhower family criticism, detailed the latest refinements to the basic design. “I never write a speech, but I felt today was really important that I state clearly what I believe,” Gehry said. Reading from prepared remarks, he called himself “more humbled than ever to present the evolution of our design.” He had “spent the last four years immersed in Eisenhower’s words, and the words of those who have shaped how history will define him. These two perspectives are often at odds — one modest, the other monumental.”
Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society and a longtime critic of the project, said he’s disappointed but not surprised at the vote. “The commission is pretending that the opposition against them is not overwhelming,” he said. The commission tries to characterize the opposition, he said, as “solely about the Eisenhower family, ignoring the critics and pundits and others who oppose it.”