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Honoring Eisenhower at Long Last

Memorial to 34th president broke ground Nov. 2

An artist’s rendering of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, scheduled to be completed by 2020. (Courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission)
An artist’s rendering of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, scheduled to be completed by 2020. (Courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission)

Its critics have called it a “monstrosity,” an “exercise in postmodern grandiosity,” and a “textbook example of the Washington swamp Donald Trump vowed to drain.”

Now, though, a memorial to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, mired in controversy for more than 17 years, is the newest monument under construction on the National Mall.

Plans for the four-acre park, designed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry, have gone through significant revisions and overcome an impressive array of opponents since it was first proposed during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Until the Nov. 2 groundbreaking, some of the most stalwart detractors still hoped that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would withhold the last approval required before construction could begin.

But those hopes were dashed at the last minute when the National Park Service quietly issued a construction permit three days before a groundbreaking ceremony.

“It’s a very proud moment for us, and so deserving of a man who saved Western democracy,” said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Eisenhower’s home state. “This memorial is long overdue.”

Zinke’s office did not respond to requests for comment. But Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, said Zinke had contacted her to see where the family stood.

“I told him that we fully support it,” she said. “We are excited by the opportunity to tell future generations about the pivotal, historic context of Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership.”

The monument will be organized around 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. It will skirt the north facade of the Education Department building, just across Independence Avenue from the National Air and Space Museum.

The tapestry design is a peacetime portrayal of the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, where on the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, Army Rangers captured and defended a German gun battery overlooking Omaha Beach and Utah Beach, the American sector of the invasion.

That design was the result of several revisions, driven in part by opposition from the Eisenhower family and lawmakers who have said they could not endorse the project without the family’s approval.

Family representatives gave their blessing last year, after the designers agreed to scrap an earlier rendition of the tapestry that called for a pastoral landscape of Eisenhower’s hometown of Abilene, Kansas.

Anne Eisenhower, another of Eisenhower’s granddaughters, called the new design “a fitting image that captures the transformational era during which Dwight Eisenhower led our allied forces and later the free world.” 

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.

Chorus of complaints

Opponents have argued that none of the proposed designs have provided a coherent narrative of Eisenhower’s life. They’ve said the proposal is too expensive and flamboyant to pay tribute to a president who was famously frugal. The project will cost close to $150 million, mostly funded by taxpayer dollars.

They have also criticized the approval process, which they say was strongly tilted in Gehry’s favor. And they’re not ready to give up until the first shovel hits the ground.

“We all feel it was just steamrolled through without the slightest interest in the chorus of opposition,” said Bruce Cole, a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, who was appointed by President Barack Obama. Cole is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and among the design’s most vocal opponents.

“I’m a historian, not a futurist, but I feel that rising generations of Americans will find the Gehry design an object of mockery rather than a fitting memorial to President Eisenhower,” Cole said.

The criticism has been widespread and bridges ideological divides.

A New Yorker column in 2013, before the latest rendition, called the scale of the design “preposterous” and the cost appalling.

“In true bipartisan spirit, almost everyone hates it,” wrote former senior editor Jeffrey Frank, who was also the author of a book about Eisenhower’s relationship with Richard Nixon.

Conservative columnist George Will chimed in, writing in The Washington Post in 2015 that the proposed design would represent Washington “at its worst.” He called the whole approval process a “saga of arrogance and celebrity worship.”

And news that the Eisenhower family was on board in 2016 didn’t squelch the criticism from The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which said the finished work would be “one more inglorious pile on the Mall.”

Roberts, the Kansas senator who heads the memorial commission, said the process, although fraught, was not unusual for a memorial of such scale. He pointed out that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt monument near the Mall was held up for 40 years because of a dispute between family members and disability rights advocates over whether Roosevelt should be depicted in a wheelchair. Construction began in 1995 and the memorial opened two years later. A statue of Roosevelt in his wheelchair was added in 2001. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, likewise, took 27 years from its conception in 1986.

The Eisenhower proposal has already gone through almost all of a 24-step approval process for any monument on federal land in the District, as laid out in the 1986 Commemorative Works Act, which was meant to corral the “numerous groups” that wanted to put their stamp on the nation’s capital.

It has the go-ahead from Republicans and Democrats on the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. It has cleared the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, a 12-member board that represents federal and local constituencies with a stake in planning for the capital. And it has a waiver from Congress to begin construction without having all the funding in place, as the law requires.

“The boxes are checked; the permissions are given; the federal review agencies have done their reviews,” memorial commission spokeswoman Chris Cimko said. “What’s done is done. And here we go.”

Final hurdles

Opponents had hoped Trump would intervene. They noted his feud with Gehry over reports in 2010 that a building Gehry had designed in Manhattan was centimeters taller than a Trump tower next door, and that Trump had campaigned on trimming costs in Washington.

Those hopes appeared to be dashed in May, when Trump signed an omnibus budget bill that forked over $45 million to the commission to move forward on construction. The commission has already received $65 million in federal money, according to a 2014 congressional report. It is also collecting private donations toward a projected fundraising goal of $25 million. It has raised about half that amount, Roberts said.

According to its website, its largest donor category — those who have given $1 million to $4.9 million — includes Honeywell, FedEx and Pfizer. The government of Taiwan, a lobbying client of fundraising organizer and former Kansas GOP Sen. Bob Dole, is also listed in that category.

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 building permit issued by the secretary of the Interior was the last hurdle.

Zinke’s office kept quiet about his position in the weeks before the groundbreaking. Opponents interpreted that as a positive sign, noting that the secretary, a retired Navy SEAL, might take a personal interest in how Eisenhower is memorialized.

They also hoped that, after a series of scandals involving Zinke’s spending on private flights, he might be eager to make a public show at cracking down on government spending. When the permit was finally issued, it did not have his signature, a detail some opponents interpreted as a sign of his ambivalence about the project.

But even the staunchest opponents acknowledged that their fight was for naught, though they questioned whether the memorial could be completed on time and within its budget.

“The memorial process was a lesson in failure,” said Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society and a longtime critic of the memorial’s design and the approval process. “There was the rigged competition, outrageous cost, monstrous design and feckless agency approval.”

“It’s an example of Washington, D.C., at its worst,” he said.

The memorial commission has set a target date to complete and dedicate the memorial of May 8, 2020, the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day in World War II.

Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.

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