The design for a memorial to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, more than 10 years in the planning, has so divided supporters and critics that the commission created to build it gave up trying to find a compromise and defiantly voted Wednesday to proceed, despite the bitter opposition of the Eisenhower family.
The unanimous vote by the congressionally created commission was especially remarkable given the momentum behind a congressional effort to undo the controversial design by world renowned architect Frank Gehry.
Only a week before, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill that would terminate the commission, throw out its members and staff and order a new design competition.
In what was a sometimes awkward session in a Capitol Hill hearing room Wednesday, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission discussed the objections by the family after Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, a commissioner, read a letter from granddaughters Susan and Anne Eisenhower that said flatly, “The family could not support the current Gehry design” and would not engage in fundraising for the memorial.
Gehry, famous for his innovative swirling buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, attended the hearing and presented modifications to his design.
Commission chairman Rocco Siciliano, a Beverly Hills attorney who worked for Eisenhower in the White House, said quietly but firmly, “The family deserves to be heard. They do not deserve to be obeyed.”
The tug of war between the Eisenhowers, who lead a vocal group of critics, and the commission centers on the untraditional approach taken by Gehry for the memorial, which is to be located on a four-acre site just off the National Mall. It is a space across the street from the National Air and Space Museum and directly in front of the Lyndon B. Johnson Department of Education Building.
“I have spent the last four years immersed in Eisenhower’s words,” said Gehry, “and the words of those who have shaped how history will define him. These two perspectives are often at odds; one modest, the other monumental.”
Eisenhower was a man who rose from modest beginnings to become the supreme allied commander who led the forces that defeated Nazi Germany in World War II and went on to become a two-term Republican president.
As envisioned by Gehry, the proposed memorial is defined on three sides by large screens held by 80-foot pillars. They would be decorated with large trees made out of mesh metal. Gehry calls them “tapestries,” but Susan Eisenhower describes them as “metal scrims.”
There are two large blocks, each with bas-reliefs. One will depict Eisenhower as president, the other an image representing the Normandy invasion. In the middle will be a statue of a teen-age Eisenhower sitting on a ledge. Gehry originally showed him as a “barefoot boy,” but the family objected.
“This does not pass the memorialization test,” said Susan Eisenhower in an interview.
She said that the scale of Gehry’s design was “overreaching” and that the materials had not been proven to be durable. She did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.
“I didn’t see the point,” she said.
Susan Eisenhower, a writer and public policy expert, has met with Gehry and commission members multiple times. The architect has incorporated some changes but she said, “We’re at an impasse. If the screens are put up, we will not support it.”
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a commission member, has found himself caught in the middle despite, as he put it, trying to be “an honest broker.”
“I think it is imperative that we continue on the course we have set,” said Roberts, who holds a great deal of sway because he represents the state where Eisenhower was raised.
The Kansas lawmaker said the death last year of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a commission member, added urgency to the need to build the memorial because many who served under the general in World War II, like Inouye, were disappearing.
Several commissioners said they had worked with grandson David Eisenhower, who was a commission member until he resigned at the end of 2011, and that he had supported the design. Susan Eisenhower hotly contested that and said, “My brother did not vote for this design.”
“The Eisenhower family is very much on the same page,” she said.
The late president’s son, John, the father of Susan, David and Anne, has also written the commission objecting to the design.
The commission has been accused by many critics, especially Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who authored the legislation to eliminate it, of failing to be transparent and holding an open design competition.
“This is definitely not the way other monuments and memorials have been done,” Bishop, chairman of a Natural Resources subcommittee with oversight of public buildings, said in an interview.
Commissioners voted Wednesday to approve the design before even talking about the legislation that would kill their organization and restart the process.
But members walk a fine line. Simpson, the lawmaker who read the Eisenhower letter and asked that the issue of the legislation be put on the agenda, nonetheless voted in favor of the design.