Eisenhower memorial design passes one hurdle, but not at finish line yet

This undated handout image provided by Gehry Partners, LLP shows an aerial perspective of Eisenhower Square looking along Maryland Avenue, SW and Independence Avenue in Washington. (AP Photo/Gehry Partners, LLP)
This undated handout image provided by Gehry Partners, LLP shows an aerial perspective of Eisenhower Square looking along Maryland Avenue, SW and Independence Avenue in Washington. (AP Photo/Gehry Partners, LLP) AP

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission, under fire from lawmakers and critics over a controversial design to honor the nation’s 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, decided Wednesday in an unusual email vote to proceed with a revised design by famed architect Frank Gehry.

The 8-2 vote means that the commission, which has been dogged by disputes over the design and funding for the last several years, will return to the National Capital Planning Commission with the revised design Oct. 2. Earlier this year, the commission, one of the memorial’s approving bodies, rejected the original Gehry plan.

The Eisenhower memorial, first approved by Congress in 1999, has barely moved off center since Gehry’s design was unveiled in 2010. Critics blasted the design, and the late president’s grandson, historian David Eisenhower, resigned from the commission, though he had been supportive of the Gehry’s design.

The family, however, was split. His sisters, the former president’s granddaughters, Susan and Anne Eisenhower, emerged as vocal opponents of the original design. They now speak for the family, and in a letter Sept. 15 they said it would not support the revised Gehry design, either.

Congress has cut back on the memorial’s funding because of the ongoing controversy.

Nonetheless, Wednesday’s vote may well give momentum to the world-renowned architect’s revised vision and jumpstart the process after critics had been arguing for a complete overhaul of his design. Gehry’s willingness to compromise with opponents has won over some of the stiffest opposition.

The modified design removes two of the metal tapestries that have been the center of controversy, leaving one large tapestry along the length of the memorial space and two bas-relief sculptures in the middle.

Gehry eliminated the two tapestries, which the planning commission said diminished the sight lines to the U.S. Capitol, and left two 80-foot columns to frame the four-acre rectangular space. The memorial is designated to be built on a tract on the National Mall across from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building.

Planning commission members were generally favorable to the revised design when they first saw it at an informational meeting earlier this month.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who is on the planning commission, had asked that the Eisenhower commission members consider an alternative that removed the remaining tapestry altogether and left only the so-called memorial core _ a bas-relief of Eisenhower as supreme allied commander on D-Day, another of him as president, and a sculpture of him in the middle as a young cadet at the U.S. Military Academy.

However, the commission rejected that option Wednesday, and it separately rejected an option to delay a decision until November, also by a vote of 8-2.

Drama over the memorial continued Wednesday, the day of the vote, when it was disclosed that Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., one of the original commission members who had served since 2001, had resigned on Sept. 17, the day of the Eisenhower commission’s annual meeting.

At that meeting, there were not enough commission members for a quorum, so the staff proposed a virtual vote for Sept. 24.

Moran was a supporter of Gehry’s original design, which relied heavily on Eisenhower’s boyhood connection to Kansas. Eisenhower was born in Texas but moved to Kansas when he was very young.

“Sen. Moran feels strongly about getting a memorial built for President Eisenhower and has been a staunch advocate for the state of Kansas to have a presence within the memorial design,” Moran’s communications director, Garrette Silverman, said in an email.

She said that Moran’s “ongoing support for the inclusion of Kansas has led him to conclude that this stance is blocking a memorial to President Eisenhower from completion. He hopes an Eisenhower Memorial is completed soon.”

With Moran off the commission, there were 11 members, but another commissioner, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., did not vote.