Over a Decade After it was Proposed, the Eisenhower Memorial is Yet to be Built

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Few of us understand the trials of the Greatest Generation, the Americans who lived through the Great Depression and World War II.  Wars were fought differently then, with almost every move costing thousands of lives. As the men fought overseas, the people back home worked to support the war effort and made sacrifices for the good of their country. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a general in the Army and later the 34th President, will go down in history as an icon of the times and one of the key figures in the United States’ rise to world power status. During WWII, Eisenhower led the campaign in Africa, destroying the Nazi presence there through Operation Torch, invaded Italy with Operation Avalanche and perhaps most importantly, coordinated Operation Overlord, which allowed the Allies to get a foothold in Western Europe and invade Germany.

Later as president, Eisenhower refused to oblige the Old Guard in the Republican Party, instead supporting progressive programs like Social Security, the Departments of Health, Education and Welfare, the integration of the military and the creation of an interstate highway system. His foreign policy during the Cold War was based on the development of atomic technology and the use of the CIA to avoid wars with nations like Russia, which he improved relations with. His belief in the domino theory led to operations that attempted to prevent the spread of communism in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. In addition, Eisenhower ended the Korean War and performed drastic actions domestically like his intervention at Central High School in Little Rock. The U-2 incident, in which the Russians shot down an American spy plane and the fact that America lagged behind Russia in the Space Race during his presidency slightly tarnished Ike’s reputation but Eisenhower, who died in 1969, is more than deserving of a memorial for his contributions to the nation. In 1999, a commission was created by Congress to oversee its creation in Washington D.C. But it is 2012, and the project has still not broken ground.

In 2009, The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission selected famed architect Frank Gehry for the project after designs were judged by the General Services Administration. Gehry acquired his “starchitect” status after building the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 1997, a curvaceous shiny structure unlike anything the architectural world had seen at the time. Gehry has since built in New York, Los Angeles, Prague, Canada and countless other places in his instantly recognizable style. Gehry could have decided that the competition was beneath him but his admiration for Ike, partially due to the fact that the architect served in the Army, attracted him to the memorial. Gehry remembers a speech that Eisenhower delivered after defeating the Nazis in which he said that in every man there’s a boy whose dream is to come home. Gehry is said to admire Ike’s humility and tries to never let his own fame get to his head, which some have trouble reconciling with the flamboyance of Gehry’s architecture.

Gehry’s plan involved inserting columns in a grassy plaza from which metal tapestries with scenes from Eisenhower’s life would hang. Gehry was praised for the element, which brought together the two-part plot and the buildings around it. Despite the fact that the tapestries would be difficult to fabricate, the Commission of Fine Arts approved the installation after seeing some mockups, deeming it appropriate considering D.C.’s aesthetic and history. This summer, the final review by the National Capital Planning Commission was supposed to occur but did not, as the Eisenhower family became increasingly critical of the plan. Gehry’s idea was to show scenes from Ike’s life in Abilene as a “barefoot boy,” which the Eisenhowers felt overemphasized his humble roots and underemphasized his service. Susan Eisenhower said, “You don’t earn a place in the memorial core of Washington based on your origins and your life’s journey. You’re there because the nation is grateful for your contribution. We don’t have Lincoln in a log cabin.” David Eisenhower resigned from the commission and Susan Eisenhower went as far as comparing the tapestries to propagandist billboards and concentration camp fences, which greatly affected Gehry (three of his relatives survived the Holocaust). A Senator Inouye suggested at a meeting of the commission that all memorials were controversial and urged support for Gehry.

Some architects like Leon Krier, a colleague of Gehry’s at Yale, believe that the departure from the Classical and Traditional styles of architecture doesn’t belong in the capital. Krier respects Gehry but calls his chaotic and explosive style inappropriate for the context. Though Gehry thinks his style is representative of democracy, Krier feels that his dismissal of Classicism is inherently undemocratic. He accuses the commission of trying too hard to introduce a Modernist aesthetic and says that Gehry’s tapestries are not innovative, having been used in Germany since the 1950s, and simply serve as cover-up for the back of the Department of Education, which stands beside the plot where the memorial would be built. Krier also condemns the competition, which cost $19 million as opposed to a counterproposal competition that cost $2,000. He is critical of the project’s $112.5 million price tag, which he says could build a substantial classical building, and the size of the lot, which can fit two of each of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Congress will pay for half of the monument and the commission, largely through the efforts of the Eisenhowers, will be responsible for further fundraising. Krier also calls upon the fact that Eisenhower hated modernist art, serving on the American Battle Monuments Commission which fought to preserve L’Enfant’s original vision for the capital.

To appease the Eisenhowers, Gehry adapted the designs, removing a statue of Ike as a seated barefoot boy and replacing it with Eisenhower as a young man. Two bas reliefs were replaced by sculptures of Eisenhower during his military service meeting with soldiers before the invasion of Normandy and Eisenhower during his presidency with his hand on a globe. However, Susan Eisenhower expressed dissatisfaction, yet again questioning the sustainability and affordability of the metal tapestries. The commission wanted to submit a presentation to the National Capital Planning Commission by July 12, with the announcement to be made on June 6, the anniversary of D-Day. But the family and secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, who asked to see large models before the submission to the NCPC, are likely trying to slow the project, at least until the fall.

Perhaps Gehry isn’t the right fit for the project. The huge price tag and large plot are hardly representative of the modest Eisenhower that Gehry wanted to present to the public. But his idea to drop the usual formalities of memorial design to make it more relatable and poignant was a step in the right direction. The twenty-first Century will hopefully never face the troubles of the Greatest Generation, but it’s crucial that this memorial be built to show what our nation’s leadership was like during that era.








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