After 17 years of soap opera-like drama — including villains, family squabbles and money problems — the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial has reached its happily-ever-after stage.
Officials will host a ceremonial groundbreaking Thursday for the $150 million memorial on its four-acre site on Independence Avenue between Fourth and Sixth streets SW. Construction on the controversial project is expected to take three years, with an opening date set for 2020.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who has led the commission since 2015, is ready to celebrate.
"A lot of these monuments do take a long time, but this took a long time. I wish it had been sooner," Roberts said. "It's going to be a very special moment for me, and for Bob Dole as well. He has been my solid partner."
Ushering any construction project through Washington's bureaucracy is never quick or easy, but the Eisenhower Memorial journey suffered multiple setbacks, most focused on architect Frank Gehry's modern design, unveiled in 2010.
The original design featured three large-scale metal tapestries along the park's perimeters and a memorial core of sculpture and bas-relief celebrating Eisenhower as both military leader and the country's 34th president. A sculpture of a young Eisenhower and images of Kansas farmland celebrated his humble beginnings.
"The design was to portray Ike as a young man from Kansas who dreamed big," Roberts said. "Here's an example of a kid from . . . small-town America, and look what happened. That's a pretty big deal."
The backlash was immediate and relentless. Members of Congress expressed their dislike — and withheld construction funds. Preservationists argued over the design's closing of Maryland Avenue, and residents and civic leaders complained about its large scale. Then Eisenhower's grandchildren came out against it, calling it unworkable and asking for a do-over.
The memorial commission pressed on despite the furor. Gehry and his staff revised and reduced the original design. Dozens of meetings debated the tree canopy, sculpture size and text selections. There was a comical discussion about dingbats, the typographical device used to signal divisions in a text. The designers brought examples of the proposed metal tapestry to the site, and offered data on its durability and maintenance needs.
At every meeting there were complaints.
"Our arguments generally went to the quality of the design and the intrusiveness of the design," said architect Don Hawkins, who testified repeatedly on behalf of the Committee of 100. "There was so much that was wrong with it."
Dole, a former senator from Kansas, agreed to lead the private fundraising effort, and notable figures such as Tom Brokaw and Tom Hanks were recruited. Dole pushed for a resolution, saying the country owed it to World War II vets like himself to get the project back on track.
The memorial received the required federal approvals two years ago but the Eisenhower family held firm in its opposition. Finally, former secretary of state James Baker was called in to negotiate with the family. He brokered a deal that changed the tapestry's image of Kansas farmland to the beaches of Normandy.
"The family wanted something more international," Roberts said. "We knew we couldn't move forward without the support of the family. There's been hiccups, stops and starts. I felt you have to work with people."
Armed with a new design and family consensus, the commission returned to federal agencies for the green light to proceed. The revised plan was approved last month.
Congress has appropriated $113 million, including $21 million for 17 years of administrative costs. The commission has requested $41.6 million in the upcoming budget, and has secured about half of the $25 million it plans to raise from private donors.
Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the National Mall Coalition, is disappointed in the final design, but not in the messy process.
"It should be an open and democratic one," said Feldman, who believes the lesson learned from the project is that future memorials should be smaller. "Why do we need four acres of what Frank Gehry called an open-air room?" she asked. "We can make better and more monuments if we can keep that at a human scale."