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Critics Reject Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial Compromise, Optimistic About Change

Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, wants a simpler design. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call FIle Photo)
Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, wants a simpler design. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call FIle Photo)

After 15 years of planning a memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the design might move forward without architect Frank Gehry’s name attached to it.  

In a Wednesday meeting blocks from Capitol Hill, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission will be presented with two plans for the four-acre site in Southwest Washington slated to become a memorial to the 34th president. There is no guarantee any official action will be taken, but the Eisenhower family, members of Congress and other stakeholders indicate the most recent compromise offered by the Gehry team is not the way forward.  

That version includes the 80-foot columns that a member of the National Capital Planning Commission two weeks ago described as reminiscent of the “latter scenes of ‘Planet of the Apes,'” and a stainless steel tapestry featuring scenes from Ike’s pastoral Kansan roots. An alternate version removes the tapestry and columns, and Gehry has indicated that would not be associated with his name. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., proposed the second option to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission as a way to steer the long-stalled project out of neutral , after sensing discord from the federal planners that must give their stamp of approval, as well as the Eisenhower family.  

After a lukewarm response from the NCPC, mounting criticism over operational costs and stalled funding from Congress, Issa thinks presenting a second option is the best way to move the project forward. He told CQ Roll Call he wrote the “somewhat unprecedented” letter to the EMC knowing that Gehry believes Eisenhower deserves this memorial and “that he’s not going to stand in the way, regardless of others.”  

Issa said the modified design presented Sept. 4 meets the technical requirements well enough that it should be approved, but it seems he just wants to see something built. The commission has “an obligation to approve something and not go back to square one, after the millions of dollars invested,” he said.  

The Eisenhower family, one of the most vocal opponents of Gehry’s design, supports Issa’s alternative or the complete redesign of the project that the congressman is hoping to avoid.  

“They are also consistent with the wishes of our late father, John S.D. Eisenhower,” wrote the former president’s granddaughters, Anne and Susan Eisenhower, in a Sept. 15 letter to the members of the EMC.  

Members of the commission, such as Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., have remained optimistic that the Eisenhower family and other parties could work through their concerns with the project.  

About a year ago, President Barack Obama added more discord to the EMC, when he appointed former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole to the mix. Cole testified to Congress in March 2012  that Gehry’s design “not only fails, but fails utterly,” and published scathing commentaries on the project.  

On Tuesday, Cole told CQ Roll Call that Issa’s proposal is a “promising development.”  

Fellow design skeptic Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, which published a scathing critique of the EMC, also sounded optimistic about the changes. Bishop has tried to restart the design competition for the memorial but told CQ Roll Call that Issa’s proposal offers “almost everything we want in the first place.”  

Bishop planned to meet with the Eisenhower sisters to talk about the design in advance of the EMC meeting. He also hinted that the commission could decide to “wait, let things play out, look at some other ideas, which would be a wise thing to do.”  

The current continuing resolution includes a provision extending the EMC’s authority to build a memorial on that site. Bishop cautioned that the House “is not willing to just keep giving them blank checks for funding.”  

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