Tensions on Eisenhower Memorial Rising Again

Posted October 26, 2012 at 2:42pm

After a few quiet months, tensions are rising again surrounding the proposed design for the National Mall memorial honoring President Dwight Eisenhower.

This time, opponents and advocates are latching onto the content of the same two-page letter to bolster their position.

Written by the consulting firm GALE Associates Inc., the letter is part of an almost 600-page technical report the Eisenhower Memorial Commission submitted in August to the National Capital Planning Commission, a panel that must approve the design before construction can begin.

The letter, accompanied by several photographs, reports the results of extensive testing done on the materials and structures the memorial would incorporate to determine whether the concept is sustainable against the elements, as well as capable of deflecting trash and debris that might mar the memorial’s appearance.

“GALE noticed some fraying of the strands at various locations [and] suspected these frays of possibly catching and holding debris. Some minor discoloration of the stainless steel wire was noted at weld locations,” the letter reads, adding that in the event that debris latches onto parts of the memorial, a pressure washer would be necessary to remove it.

But despite this observation, the letter concludes that “the probability of random debris becoming lodged in the tapestry is low. The fact that the tapestry will be 15 to 20-feet above grade would likely further reduce this potential.”

National Civic Art Society President Justin Shubow, one of the memorial’s leading critics, said the letter conveyed the possibility that the design’s experimental elements could prove fatal to its longevity.

“Why do we even want to take a chance on a national memorial?” asked Shubow, who argues that the design is both structurally flawed as well as unattractive and unbefitting of the former president and World War II hero’s legacy. “And even if they give some evidence that it’s durable and permanent, it certainly doesn’t look permanent. It’s gauzy, ephemeral and does not look like something that will last for the ages. And there’s no way to prove [its durability] because it’s never been done before.”

Chris Cimko, spokeswoman for the 11-member Eisenhower Memorial Commission, of which eight members are Congressional lawmakers, dismissed Shubow’s comments about the GALE letter’s findings.

“We believe that the GALE letter is absolutely correct. It states in black and white that based on testing they’ve done, the probability of random debris is low. That’s what we’re focusing on,” Cimko said. “And the National Civic Arts Society has opposed us from the start, so we’re not surprised it is taking elements of this report out of context.”

Meanwhile, Shubow also accuses the commission of flying below the transparency radar, aided by a General Services Administration that orchestrated the selection process that lead to the appointment of architect Frank Gehry to design the memorial.

The NCPC posted the technical report online in September, Shubow said, at which point he downloaded a copy for himself. A month later, he discovered the report had been removed at the GSA’s request. Shubow has gone on to publish the report on a separate website (www.eisenhowermemorial.net) run by the National Civic Art Society to campaign against Gehry’s design.

“Could it be that the report is an embarrassment to the Memorial’s backers?” reads an article on the website.

According to a statement from Julia Koster, NCPC director of the Office of Public Engagement, the organization was told by the GSA that the report “contained sensitive but unclassified information [and] asked NCPC to remove the summary for its website.”

Koster added that the NCPC is working with the GSA to determine what could and could not be posted on the website, and “at the conclusion of these conversations, NCPC intends to re-post for public use.”

GSA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara also told Roll Call that the agency was “initially concerned that the … report may have contained sensitive structural building information and, based on communications from Gehry Partners, potentially propriety information.

“Out of an abundance of caution, GSA requested that the NCPC temporarily remove the material from its public website,” Alcantara continued.

In addition to providing findings relating to the durability of the design, the report contains specific information about the design structure that could theoretically be used by terrorists seeking to attack the memorial or surrounding area. A GSA order spurred by the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City requires the agency to make sure there is no public information available that could abet another such attack.

“While GSA is not the manager of this project, GSA is merely acting as a procurement arm of [the Eisenhower Memorial Commission],” Alcantara explained. “We are currently reviewing our order to determine its applicability, if any, to the memorial project.”

A Long Road

The commission, established by Congress in 1999 to orchestrate an Eisenhower memorial that was originally estimated to cost $90 million to $110 million and now has an estimated $142 million price tag, had hoped to break ground by the year’s end on the memorial to the former president and World War II hero.

Those hopes appear to have been dashed as the project has been slowed by controversy, starting with Eisenhower’s children and grandchildren, who say the tribute is unfitting to his legacy.

Members of Congress, who appropriate some of the money for the project, also began to voice dissatisfaction with the decision to center the memorial around a statue depicting Eisenhower as a young boy looking out on a tableau of what he would accomplish in his life.

“Depicting [Eisenhower] as a barefoot adolescent is inappropriate for a memorial on the National Mall and would not convey the importance of his achievements,” wrote Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in a letter to the NCPC in February.

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands convened a hearing in March as the dispute reached a fever pitch. The commission argued it had sought appropriate public input on the design all stakeholders liked; others countered that not only was the design bad, but that Gehry had been chosen in a “fixed” selection process and the commission had operated without appropriate transparency.

Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said the project should not receive any more Congressional funding until differences had been resolved. In May, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), also a member of the NCPC, said his team was investigating how the commission has functioned since its inception and how funding had been used.

Issa spokesman Ali Ahmad said on Thursday that “the committee is still receiving and reviewing relevant documentation.”

The commission worked with Gehry to make revisions and, in May, all members said they were pleased with the tweaks and expressed optimism that the project could move forward without delay.

“Time is of the essence,” said Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a World War II veteran, in mid-May regarding building the four-acre memorial dedicated to his one-time commander. “There is a national interest in making sure this monument is completed to remind the next generation of Americans what America has gone through and the great leaders we’ve had.”

But the Eisenhower family, the National Civic Art Society and other critics were not impressed.

“Many of the changes that Gehry Partners made to the design concept are positive and welcomed,” the family members said in a statement.

In particular, the statue of Eisenhower that was to depict him as a child will now present him as a young man, and bas-reliefs will now be three-dimensional statues: one depicting Eisenhower speaking with 101st Airborne division soldiers at Normandy; another showing the former president as depicted in the 1966 photo “The Elder Statesman” taken by Yousuf Karsh.

“The scope and scale of the metal scrims, however, remain controversial and divisive,” the statement continued. “Not only are they the most expensive element of the Gehry design, they are also the most vulnerable to urban conditions, as well as wildlife incursions and ongoing, yet unpredictable, life-cycle costs. … For those reasons, we do not support a design that utilizes them.”

Then, on June 7, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a member of the NCPC, said he wanted an opportunity to personally review the design before things continued to move forward.

All of these roadblocks have resulted in a series of postponements of previously scheduled appointments for the commission to make a presentation to the NCPC.

The most recent delay, Cimko said, coincided with the commission’s submission of an almost 600-page technical report detailing the testing that had been done on the materials that would make up the memorial.

The NCPC, she said, wanted to take more time to review the report.

Correction, Oct. 26
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the estimated price of the Eisenhower memorial.