Eisenhower Memorial Clears Key Construction Hurdle

Commissioners hope to break ground in October

A monument to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 17 years in the making, is finally moving ahead. (Courtesy The Eisenhower Memorial Commission, 2017. Memorial Design by Gehry Partners, LLP; Tapestry by Tomas Osinski; Sculpture by Sergey Eylanbekov)
A monument to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 17 years in the making, is finally moving ahead. (Courtesy The Eisenhower Memorial Commission, 2017. Memorial Design by Gehry Partners, LLP; Tapestry by Tomas Osinski; Sculpture by Sergey Eylanbekov)
Posted September 21, 2017 at 5:03am

Seventeen years, eight Congresses and three presidents after Bill Clinton commissioned planning for a massive memorial honoring President Dwight D. Eisenhower, planners finally expect to break ground by the end of fall.

The Eisenhower family is on board. Republicans and Democrats on the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee are on board.

And now, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts is on board, too, after voting Wednesday to unanimously approve the memorial commission’s latest artistic design, a crucial step toward beginning construction.

Fine Arts commissioners Wednesday morning reviewed models and prototypes on-site, which had an apparently profound impact on their decision later in the day to greenlight the project.

“I was moved today on-site in a way I hadn’t been when reading the book [of design models and charts] over the past week,” Elizabeth Meyer, a Fine Arts commissioner, told a team from the memorial commission, her colleagues nodding and murmuring in agreement.

The National Capital Planning Commission, which will review the design for long-term structural integrity on Oct. 5, is the lone remaining obstacle. If the design passes inspection — a foregone conclusion, considering the memorial commission has conducted and passed all the tests assigned by the NCPC — the hard hats should break ground “within a month, a month and a half,” said Alfred Geduldig, one of two original memorial commissioners who have navigated the project through nearly twenty years of negotiations.

“We would love to do it before winter,” he added

The final blueprint

The monument, a four-acre park skirting the north facade of the Education Department building near the southeast tip of the National Mall, will feature a roughly 25,000-square-foot transparent tapestry of steel cables woven along a metal framework. The tapestry comprises 600 3-by-15-foot panels and will span the length and width of nearly five basketball courts stacked baseline to baseline. 

The final tapestry design, approved by the Fine Arts Commission on Wednesday, is a peacetime portrayal of the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, where on the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, two Army Ranger battalions captured and defended a German gun battery overlooking Omaha Beach and Utah Beach, the American sector of the invasion.

The original design for the tapestry, the park’s centerpiece and the object of considerable debate that has stalled construction for the past few years, called for a pastoral landscape of Eisenhower’s hometown in Abilene, Kansas. But his family balked at the concept and told planners they wanted the tapestry to depict Normandy, the toehold their grandfather used to liberate Europe from the Nazi menace.

“They saw Normandy as a moment in world history as well as Ike’s history,” memorial commission spokeswoman Chris Cimko said.

The family reached a compromise last September with the memorial commission and its lead architect, Frank Gehry, to create a tapestry with an image of the Normandy coastline.

“Everybody had a little head-scratch moment, but then we said, ‘OK, let’s go for it,’” Cimko said.

Eisenhower’s relatives endorsed the design in a letter to the Fine Arts Commission. In the letter, they said the tapestry would memorialize “Eisenhower’s leadership and sacrifices made by the armed forces in the liberation of Europe” and serve as “a reminder of the peace secured during his presidency.”

The park will also be home to three 9-foot-tall bronze statues of Eisenhower — as a young boy growing up in the American heartland, as the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in World War II and as the United States’ 34th president — accompanied by stone blocks etched with Eisenhower quotes reflecting each of the three periods.

Controversial cost 

Over the years, numerous groups have protested the grandiosity of Gehry’s thoroughly 21st-century design — and its extravagant price tag. The project will ultimately cost close to $150 million, mostly funded by taxpayer dollars.

Some opponents hoped President Donald Trump, who campaigned partly on trimming costs across the board in Washington, would put a freeze on funding for the project.

 “This is emblematic of the swamp that the new president says he is here to drain,” Sam Roche, a 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, told Roll Call in March.

But in May, the president inked an omnibus budget bill that forked over $45 million to the memorial commission to move forward with construction.

And in August, the General Services Administration awarded a building contract valued at $75 million to Bethesda-based Clark Construction, the same company that erected the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The wheels, rusting for nearly two decades, appeared ready to churn.

As the meeting adjourned Wednesday at the Fine Arts Commission boardroom, Chairman Earl A. Powell III gathered his papers and leaned across his table toward the memorial’s design team and commissioners.

“Now,” he said, “we can say it hasn’t been 17 wasted years.”