In 1999, Congress voted to create a commission to oversee the realization of a national monument to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and, apart from giving it some money, mainly left it alone to do its business.
Now, House lawmakers appear poised to pursue legislation that would significantly overhaul the commission’s past 14 years of work or, in the words of one commission member, “eviscerate” it.
“This has become a nonstarter,” Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said of the controversial design for the monument to the president and war hero that has had its progress halted by opposition to its scale, scope and aesthetic vision.
Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, summoned stakeholders on Tuesday to testify about the current memorial concept and the selection process.
The hearing was held almost a year to the day of the last House forum to probe the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s progress and perhaps help sparring factions find common ground.
“The gap might be wider today than it was a year ago,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., the subcommittee ranking member.
But Tuesday’s hearing was also a chance to test the waters for whether concerned parties would welcome Bishop’s bill, introduced last week, that would appoint new members to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, eliminate its federal funding and sunset the organization entirely in three year’s time.
Most significantly, the legislation would force the commission to launch a new competition to select an alternative memorial design, one that would in all likelihood replace the current concept envisioned by renowned architect Frank Gehry.
Eisenhower Memorial Commission Executive Director Carl Reddel defended the organization’s work Tuesday and its efforts to compromise on the design concept when critics first aired their grievances. He added that the proposed three-year deadline to get a monument off the ground would be nearly impossible to meet and suggested that overhauling the process at this stage would be a setback and a waste of taxpayer dollars. The commission, comprised of lawmakers and outside experts and supported by paid staff, operates with both public and private funding.
But the other witnesses testifying before the panel agreed it was time for Congress to reinsert itself in the process, and supported the underlying intent of Bishop’s legislation.
“There’s no question that this monument … cannot be built if it is inconsistent with the views of the people who knew our commander-in-chief in times of war and peace as well as his family,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee also sits on the National Capital Planning Commission, an entity that has a role in determining whether the project can move forward.
Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, followed Issa’s testimony on Tuesday to reiterate, on behalf of the rest of the family, the grievances she has aired publicly over the past year and a half over the current design.
“The design is flawed in concept and overreaching in scale,” she said, adding that the Eisenhowers “for more than 10 years … raised concerns and objections that were ignored, and we believe, never adequately communicated to all the Commission members.”
Susan Eisenhower also submitted into the committee record an October 2012 letter her father, the president’s only surviving son and a former commission member, John S. D. Eisenhower sent to the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who as a World War II veteran also served on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission before his death in December.
In the letter, John S.D. Eisenhower conceded that “this memorial should be designed for the benefit of the people, not our family.”
He went on, however, to emphasize that the family’s disapproval should be taken to heart alongside concerns everybody should have about the design’s inaccessibility, questionable sustainability, exorbitant price tag and overall aesthetic value.
“No memorial has ever been built over the objections of the family,” Susan Eisenhower said.
Following the hearing Tuesday, Bishop acknowledged that “it’s easy to hide behind the family,” but that many people are troubled by Gehry’s design.
Bishop said he appreciates that art is largely subjective, and said that if it were only the memorial’s design in question he would be less inclined to get involved in the issue at all.
“It would be hard for me to argue with a bad design if the process had been followed appropriately and the money had been spent wisely,” Bishop said.
Comments made during the course of the hearing suggested just how difficult it might be for Congress to reconcile a variety of artistic perspectives to honor a man about whom many people feel very passionate.
Architect Arthur Cotton Moore, a sixth-generation Washingtonian, on Tuesday proposed a new monument that he said would be more harmonious with the District’s topography: two statues could “serve as a gateway to Maryland Avenue,” with one depicting Eisenhower as “Supreme Allied Commander for the European theater in World War II, and the other as a two-term president of the United States.”
Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, said that the monument should be “legible without a guide or key,” a “statement” rather than a “question mark,” and “made of noble materials … such as marble and bronze.”
Subcommittee member Cynthia M. Lummis, R-Wyo., said she didn’t care for the Gehry design but didn’t offer a suggestion for what would make it better. Fellow panel Republican Tom McClintock of California called the current concept “outlandish,” “appalling,” and a “monstrous perversion of a great man.”
And then there was subcommittee Democrat Rush D. Holt of New Jersey.
“I’m sure there will be some dissatisfaction about any memorial,” he said, but added, “I sort of like the design we have now.”