UPDATE: On Thursday, Dec.15, after this story was written, the Eisenhower Commission announced David Eisenhower’s resignation from the Commission.
“Because no man is really a man who has lost out of himself all of the boy, I want to speak first of the dreams of a barefoot boy” — Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 22, 1945
Susan Eisenhower wants you to know that she’s grateful. Her whole family is. And they know that Dwight D. Eisenhower would be humbled that a memorial in his honor is about to be built just south of the Mall.
That’s what makes this so hard.
“We have some serious concerns about the design,” said Susan, 59, one of the four grandchildren of the 34th president of the United States. They have sustainability concerns. Logistical concerns. Aesthetic concerns.
But there’s a more essential problem for the Eisenhowers. What is their role in the creation of a memorial for the man who meant so much to so many?
“We understand that not everyone cares what we think,” said Susan, an energy specialist and Washington area resident who has a commanding presence reminiscent of the president she calls “Granddad.” “The truth is we care [about] what we know, and I don’t think my grandfather would be comfortable with the scale and scope of this design.”
The groundbreaking of the Eisenhower Memorial is scheduled for early 2012. Congress created the Eisenhower Memorial Commission in 1999, and charged it with memorializing Dwight D. Eisenhower as both the supreme commander of the allied forces in Europe during World War II and the 34th president of the United States. In late 2008, the commission selected Frank Gehry to design the memorial. Sometimes called the most famous “starchitect” in the world, he’s the type of avant-garde architect who injects movement into steel. His buildings don’t sit, they explode.
In 2010, the commission approved Gehry’s unconventional memorial design. Gehry chose set designer Robert Wilson to collaborate on the design. Together, this team has produced a plan that, to Susan and many of its critics, looks like a theater stage set.
The controversy surrounding Gehry’s concept stems from what he calls “the barefoot boy” from Kansas, a phrase taken from Eisenhower’s homecoming speech in Abilene, Kan., after the Second World War. Focusing on his childhood rather than his accomplishments is an unexpected approach to memorial design, and to the Eisenhower family, it is inappropriate.
“I just don’t think Dwight Eisenhower is remembered because he was a barefoot boy from Kansas,” said Susan. “When I look at this memorial, I don’t see any bit of him in it.”
The design has also been the subject of debate among various regulatory agencies that must approve it, such as the Commission on Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commission. It has evolved with each subsequent hearing and meeting, as tends to happen with large memorial projects in Washington. Currently, the National Capital Planning Commission is scheduled to hold a hearing for preliminary approval of Gehry’s concept in February.
Most of the concerns stem from the planned 80-foot tapestries and large steel columns, 11 feet in diameter, that will frame the memorial’s four-acre park. Made of woven steel, this metal curtain is the focal point. Many people assumed that these tapestries would showcase images of Eisenhower’s life as general and president. Instead, they will show images of the Kansas landscape in winter, in keeping with the “barefoot boy” theme.
The current design also includes a statue of Eisenhower as a young boy, whereas the initial plan had no statuary. Bas reliefs modeled after famous photographs of Eisenhower as both general and president will also be in the park, with the statue of young Ike looking toward them.
It’s the statue that has caused much of the criticism. Without question, Gehry’s barefoot boy turns the traditional hero memorial on its head, emphasizing Eisenhower’s humble origins rather than his accomplishments. It’s a radical change in memorial design for a man Susan says “embraced traditional values.”
Modernism vs. traditionalism. In Washington, this spells controversy. The project has become a battle of wills, wherein everyone involved — members of the Eisenhower commission, citizen groups, industry experts — makes their opinions known.
To some, Gehry’s design is a fresh approach in line with an avant-garde architect’s works. To others, Frank Gehry is a guy with two first names, an artist knocking a general off a bronze horse.
But this an oversimplification, says Martin Moeller, curator of the National Building Museum’s “Unbuilt Washington,” a current exhibition on memorials, monuments and architectural projects in Washington that were never built.
“This modernism versus traditionalism debate is a false dichotomy,” said Moeller. “There are never just two options [in architecture.] With memorials, there are so many issues, not just the usual technical constraints. Memorials are weighted with symbolism and a lot of people feel a connection to them, so the designs always stir debate.”
Susan Eisenhower and her family, who she says are “all on the same page,” would prefer a simpler, more traditional design, one that depicts their grandfather’s accomplishments.They’re not against Gehry. They’re not against modern design. They just don’t like this one.
“Any memorial should memorialize the person who, in theory, is being honored,” said Susan’s sister Anne Eisenhower, 62, an interior designer in New York. “Our grandfather was a very serious person. He’s not an artist or someone who would warrant a totally new avant-garde design.”
A Family Affair
The question of how to portray the legacy of a president is never simple. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, dedicated in 1997 and situated on a 7.5-acre plot, caused controversy among disability advocates and the Roosevelt grandchildren. The FDR in a Wheelchair Campaign and other civic groups believed that Roosevelt should have been portrayed in a wheelchair, since he spent 24 years of his life in one after surviving polio. The debate caused a rift among his 25 living grandchildren. In April 1997, just weeks before the dedication, 16 of them issued a statement that highlighted the lack of a “family position” on the portrayal of FDR.
The opinions of family members have carried weight in past memorials, Just as David Eisenhower, Ike’s eldest and only grandson, sits on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, FDR’s grandson David B. Roosevelt served on the FDR Memorial Commission.
Kirk Savage, author of “Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape” said family members are gaining increasing influence in the design and scope of memorials.
“We see a lot of family input in victim memorials,” said Savage. “At the World Trade Center memorial, the Oklahoma City Memorial. Families believe they have a right to have some input now. That’s different from way things used to be. Vietnam veterans had zero input in the design.”
Memorial landscape design has also changed over time, becoming more spatial and expansive. “There’s been a departure from the standard portrait statue,” said Savage. “A hundred years ago, a commanding officer would be shown on horseback. Now statuary is just part of a larger setting.”
Savage also thinks memorial designers can now take liberties with some historical leaders. A figure such as Eisenhower lends himself to greater experimentation: “Eisenhower was a commander, an authority figure,” said Savage. “It’s easier for Gehry to play around with him. Memorial designers could never have portrayed Martin Luther King as a boy. It would have been considered highly offensive. The fact that the statuary of a boy can even be proposed shows that we take [Eisenhower’s] stature for granted.”
But there are added layers particular to Eisenhower: “He was a modest person, a homey and congenial figure, which in some ways, is why he’s underestimated,” said Jim Newton, author of the new biography “Eisenhower: The White House Years.” “His complexity as a figure makes [the memorial] a challenge. He was the conqueror of Hitler and a two-term president. Unlike most people who are memorialized, there’s this duality to his achievements.”
Carl W. Reddel, executive director the Eisenhower Commission, recognizes the complexity. “Frank has to be mindful that the law tells him he must memorialize the president and the supreme commander of the allied forces. He has to unify that in a way that is true to history.”
Recently, the Eisenhower grandchildren met with Gehry in New York to discuss their position on the design. Susan said it was a very cordial conversation.
“We respect Frank Gehry and his accomplishments,” said Susan. Gehry did not return requests for comment.
Reddel says that the commission encourages the family’s involvement. “Anne and Susan have attended since 2002, and Frank has been mindful of their concerns. David is one of the 12 commissioners. The commission seeks to represent the American people in the broadest sense, so the family’s opinion is a matter of interest.”
Representing the interests of all Americans might present even greater challenges. Most Americans won’t have an opinion until after the memorial is completed.
“The process for building memorials doesn’t open itself up to the public in a real serious or significant way,” said Savage. “The deck is stacked against the broader public.”
Some local citizens groups in Washington take issue with other aspects: the process, location, and the sightline of the Capitol. The Committee of 100 on the Federal City has concerns regarding the site itself and how it disrupts the urban pattern.
The National Civic Art Society questions the process by which the commission selected Gehry, going so far as to submit a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents from the commission.
Eric Wind, the former chairman of the group, led an alternative design competition for the memorial in the spring that produced a classical alternative to Gehry’s design. “These Gehry towers are the emphasis of his design,” said Wind. “If you look at the Capitol through these views, it makes the dome look like a Lego toy.” His group also takes issue with the statuary. “Depicting Eisenhower as a barefoot boy doesn’t cultivate any sense of grandeur for his accomplishments as a general and president.”
For Susan and her siblings, caught in the passions of memorial politics, the message is simple. “It makes more sense to think of Eisenhower as a champion of peace and prosperity” said Susan. “If this medium is the message, it doesn’t align with Dwight Eisenhower.”