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Massive Eisenhower Memorial Could Break Ground as Early as September

Congressional support among the last barriers after 20-year dispute

An artist’s rendition of the vista from the Eisenhower Memorial looking toward the Capitol. (Courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission)
An artist’s rendition of the vista from the Eisenhower Memorial looking toward the Capitol. (Courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission)

Construction could begin as early as September on a proposed memorial for President Dwight D. Eisenhower that has been mired in controversy for almost 20 years. 

That’s according to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission and the chairman of the House committee that oversees the funding for the project.

“I don’t think there are any obstacles in front of us,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. “We need to get it done. Our World War II heroes are leaving us very quickly.”

The California Republican’s endorsement would be among the final hurdles for the memorial project, which would transform an entire four-acre city block near the National Mall in Washington. The project, designed by architect Frank Gehry, consists of a massive, woven metal tapestry and several statues depicting Eisenhower’s life. Its footprint would be large enough to encompass the Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.

Completing the project would require a significant commitment from Congress at a time when it is being asked by the Trump administration to make deep and painful cuts to federal funding for domestic programs. Opponents to the design are now looking to Trump — who has publicly feuded with Gehry — to weigh in.

“We hope very much that someone in the Trump administration will pay attention,” said Sam Roche, spokesman for Right by Ike, an organization that has advocated a scaled-down memorial and criticized the process that resulted in the selection of Gehry’s design. “This is emblematic of the swamp that the new president says he is here to drain.”

Trump and Gehry have clashed since 2010, when they traded barbs over reports that a Gehry-designed building in Manhattan was a few centimeters taller than a Trump residential building next to it. Gehry said before last fall’s election that he would move to France if Trump was elected.

Ready to shovel

Chris Cimko, a spokeswoman for the memorial commission, said her group is “confident” that it would be ready for a fall groundbreaking — and she hoped that Trump would sign off with a favorable tweet.

“President Trump is a builder, and he is a Republican,” she said. “I can’t imagine that he doesn’t revere Ike.”

The proposal has undergone several revisions, driven in part by the opposition from the Eisenhower family and congressional lawmakers who have said they could not endorse the project without the family’s approval. Family representatives gave their blessing after the most recent design change last year.

Anne Eisenhower, one of President Eisenhower’s grandchildren, reiterated that support in an interview last week.

“We’re all very much for it,” she said. “Everything worked out to mutual satisfaction, and we’re delighted.”

Calvert, of the House Appropriations committee, said he hoped that Trump’s budget proposal would not have any bearing on the memorial project, which is at least $84 million short of the estimated $150 million in federal money it needs to be completed, according to documents the commission has submitted to Congress.

The commission has also projected that it will need as much as $25 million in private donations but “our fundraising is well underway,” Cimko said.

The fundraising has been spearheaded by former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who has mobilized the support of celebrities like filmmaker and actor Tom Hanks and former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw.

Calvert said he was “committed” to appropriating the remaining money from Congress over the next two years as the commission has requested.

The commission has already received $65 million in federal money, according to a 2014 congressional report. But Congress has not provided any additional construction money since 2013. And in 2014, the House Committee on Natural Resources issued a scathing report on the project’s design problems and expenditures. An aide at that panel referred questions about the current status of the project to the Appropriations Committee.

Calvert said the commission can begin to build with the $17 million to $18 million it still has in its accounts.

The memorial commission is required by law to have all its funding in place before it breaks ground, but it can proceed anyway thanks to a special waiver from Congress that was renewed last year, according to a member of Calvert’s staff.

The commission’s announcement last week that it had appointed Sen. Thad Cochran to its board signaled that another potential stumbling block had been cleared. As the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Mississippi Republican’s support would be instrumental in moving the budget proposal through the Senate.

Cochran’s office declined to make him available for comment last week.

Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for the commission’s chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, said the Kansas Republican’s office wouldn’t discuss budget requests yet, but that recent developments, including Cochran’s appointment, would push the project forward.

 Moving forward

“The momentum in favor of the memorial is strong,” she said.

The current design features a sheer metal tapestry, 60 feet high and 385 feet long, depicting the D-Day landing site on the beaches of Normandy as they appear today. That image will serve as a backdrop to a park, across from the Air and Space Museum on Independence Avenue, where groupings of statues will represent different stages of Eisenhower’s life and career.

Earlier versions of the design had a statue of a young Eisenhower surrounded by tapestries of his boyhood home of Abilene, Kansas.

Opponents have argued that the revisions don’t make sense. They say that the proposal is still too expensive and flamboyant to accurately reflect Eisenhower — who was famously frugal.

“It’s a shame that Chairman Calvert is willing to fund an atrocious, boondoggle design simply because the Eisenhower family has caved to pressure,” said Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society. “Why should the family dictate the design of a national memorial, especially when the design has been overwhelmingly opposed by nearly everyone who has weighed in on it?”

But Cimko, the commission spokeswoman, said she does not foresee any more delays. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, the two agencies required to sign off on memorials before they can be constructed in the district, gave preliminary approvals to the design changes in January and February. Both agencies will have to approve the final design before construction can begin.

Cimko said an engineer in California is working on one of the last pieces required to get those approvals. He is weaving sample tapestry panels out of wire threads on a specially built machine. Cimko said those panels will be displayed for the approval agencies in the coming months.

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