The writer is spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial.
Congress may not be very popular these days, but lawmakers are reining in at least one runaway government program on the public’s behalf: a long-delayed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower that has become a contentious and expensive boondoggle in the hands of his memorial commission.
In the federal budget passed in December, Congress voted for the third year in a row not to fund the design by famed architect Frank Gehry that the Eisenhower Memorial Commission hopes to build over widespread objections that have extended to the former president’s family.
Acknowledging that there’s plenty of public support for an Eisenhower memorial, just not this one, lawmakers appropriated just enough money to keep the commission open and the memorial authorized. But unelected commissioners are treating this as a public subsidy to keep lobbying for the same problematic design, refusing to recognize the budget setback as a signal to change course. In fact, the president has already requested funding for next year and is adding more prominent advisers to a support team that already includes every living former U.S. president.
Such tactics are holding progress on the memorial hostage to one design that is too controversial to build, let alone represent this president’s legacy. Eisenhower fought and governed through consensus-building, not controversy, which is partly why we see his personal achievements in national terms, from D-Day in Normandy to postwar peace and prosperity. Nor would a man who asked to be buried in a government-issue, $80 pine coffin likely welcome Gehry’s flamboyant and expensive vision, which features a gigantic metal screen and a statue of a young Eisenhower. Building it would cost nearly $150 million, as much in today’s dollars as the memorials to Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson combined.
But the commission’s own policies are as much to blame for the controversy around Gehry’s design. Commissioners ignored the usual public process for designing national memorials, which evolved to deal with the cost and content concerns that brought us to this impasse. Public design competitions build consensus through participation, by soliciting design ideas from the public. They provide feasible alternatives in the form of second- and third-place winners. They are inexpensive and can be used to control costs. We have used such competitions for every memorial designed for the Mall since 1981, when the process chose 21-year-old Maya Ying Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A competition for the World War I memorial that just concluded cost $650,000 and chose a winning design with an estimated cost of $35 million.
By contrast, the program used by the Eisenhower commission cost $13 million to run and produced a design that will cost nearly $150 million. That program sought designers, not design ideas; considered only registered architects, not the public; and commissioned designers before they finalized a design. Choosing Gehry in this way closed out alternatives and left him without incentive to control costs or court consensus.
Congressional investigators also found evidence the memorial commission administered this undemocratic selection process abnormally, under a chairman with personal and professional ties to Gehry. He promoted the architect to fellow commissioners before the selection process began, and alterations to established criteria favored Gehry’s selection. These facts were uncovered in a House Oversight Committee investigation, which also found the memorial commission increased compensation to Gehry’s firm by some $6.5 million, nearly 65 percent of the original contract’s value.
Such findings support the emerging consensus that the Gehry design is too controversial and too expensive. To get Eisenhower’s memorial completed, we must return to the usual public process and redesign the memorial through a competition that is open to everyone. Fortunately, we already have the necessary funds in place to fund and perhaps build a new design, thanks to nearly $20 million the commission retains from past congressional appropriations.
But a new competition likely won’t happen without congressional action to rein in — not just defund — the unelected commissioners who are thwarting consensus on Eisenhower’s memorial. Replacing bureaucratic abuse with a democratic design process that controls costs must be the first step in bringing Eisenhower’s memorial in line with his legacy.