Uproar over Ike memorial

05/20/2014 6:28 PM

05/21/2014 12:35 AM

It’s a small, contested piece of real estate on the National Mall, itself the most visible and valuable green space in the nation’s capital.

The 4-acre rectangle sits within view of the U.S. Capitol and is set to become the site of a monument to Dwight D. Eisenhower — the late president, supreme commander of Allied Forces during World War II and son of Kansas.

Just what that tribute should look like fuels a simmering war among admirers, lawmakers, the commission behind the memorial, celebrated architect Frank Gehry, city planning and art experts, and the Eisenhower family.

That fight could come to a head next month.

The Ike tribute will likely be the last memorial built on the mall. Stakeholders and lawmakers agree the 2-mile

stretch from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol is maxed out.

This memorial would feature bas-relief sculptures based on two famous photographs. One shows Eisenhower in uniform on D-Day addressing troops. The other portrays him working on legislation as president.

Perched between them is a statue of a young West Point Ike sitting on a ledge. It’s framed by huge woven metal tapestries on three sides — depicting trees and landscapes of Kansas, his boyhood home — held by 10 massive 80-foot-tall stone columns.

It’s the tapestries — the monument’s distinctive piece de resistance derided by some as “scrims” — that feed debate and brought the Eisenhower memorial to a crossroads.

Critics have called for a new design competition, a re-do. Supporters have fumed at the time already lost. Congress has cut all construction and half the administrative funding until there’s a resolution.

A key approving agency, the National Capital Planning Commission, voted April 3 against letting the project go forward because it didn’t meet three of seven required design elements. In particular, it noted that the columns and tapestries are so large they would impede views of the Capitol.

That didn’t kill the memorial, but it’s on hold while everyone waits to see how Gehry and the congressionally created Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission respond at a June 5 planning commission meeting. The planning commission voted to require a status report on the memorial every two months.

The vision for the memorial comes from Gehry. The Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect is famous for his innovative structures, especially his signature, billowing titanium Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. His design for the memorial was selected in 2010. In an interview Tuesday with McClatchy, he declined to talk about the memorial.

“It’s a trying time,” was all he would say.

Previously, Gehry has said he sees the tapestries as a central, storytelling feature of the memorial that celebrates Eisenhower’s modest roots.

“He didn’t beat his chest and say, ‘I won the war,’” Gehry said at a symposium after the design was chosen.

Eisenhower commission spokeswoman Chris Cimko wouldn’t say whether commission members would attend the June planning commission meeting.

“We have to look at the design and see how we can meet the objections,” she said, describing them as minor. “We may have private meetings.”

After the April 3 decision, the Eisenhower commission said in a news release that it would review the ruling, which it found “surprising.” The Eisenhower commission noted that it had answered the planning commission’s challenges about the metal durability of the tapestries.

The Eisenhower commission seemed last year to recognize the scope of the resistance and quietly added an advisory panel led by Frank Fahrenkopf, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and Gen. P.X. Kelley, a former Marine Corps commandant who chaired the American Battle Monuments Commission.

“We were asked to get this thing off center,” Fahrenkopf said in an interview. “There are more than three sides involved: the commission, those opposed to Gehry and those that don’t like the design. We’ve met with everyone on all sides of the issue. We’ve got to get this done before there aren’t any (World War II) veterans left.”

Fahrenkopf, who’s trying to broker a compromise, said of the design, “There’s going to have to be adjustments made.”

The memorial has its fans. Eisenhower’s hometown of Abilene, Kan., passed a resolution in March endorsing the design, noting that it takes account of his boyhood in the Sunflower State.

A powerful voice in the debate, the Eisenhower family, doesn’t see it that way.

Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter of the 34th president and a well-known author and consultant on international issues, has been at the center of the opposition.

She said that the tapestries were “the most problematic” part of the memorial.

“If the scrims were removed as a design element,” she said, “you’d have an internal monument and I think it would be acceptable.”

While things are at an “impasse,” she said, “my family stands ready to talk to anybody.”

The family has withdrawn fundraising support for the design because it finds the vision too grandiose to honor what relatives and friends describe as a modest and humble man.

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and the chairman of a House Natural Resources Committee panel with oversight of public lands, has moved a bill through committee to terminate the current Eisenhower commission and start over.

“It’s those scrims,” said Bishop, when asked about his resistance to the design. “It’s a non-starter. They seem to be the legacy Gehry wants to have. It is the scrims that almost everybody gags at.”

The statues, a more traditional style of memorial, have support, he said. Like most of the critics, Bishop said he wasn’t trying to impose his taste on others, but that there should be a consensus on a design.

Legislation for a memorial to Eisenhower was first approved in 1999 and is now projected to cost more than $140 million. Ever since the Eisenhower commission chose Gehry’s entry, the artist has been the lightning rod for criticism.

He originally wanted the statue in the middle of the memorial to be of Ike as a “barefoot boy,” based on a speech that Eisenhower made when he’d returned to his hometown. That interpretation sparked much irritation, especially from the family, over what seemed to be a diminishing of the president and not showcasing him for his accomplishments. So Gehry made him older — Ike as the West Point cadet.

Justin Shubow, the president of the National Civic Art Society, is the most outspoken of the critics. He wants the project scrapped and a new competition to produce a more traditional memorial.

“Gehry could take out the columns and we’d be left with this rinky-dink memorial core,” he said. “The scope and scale is totally topsy-turvy. … The memorial is still about Gehry. It’s all about the architecture.”

There’s even opposition within the Eisenhower commission. Its newest member, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities Bruce Cole, said the design was in a “death spiral.”

“Unless this behemoth is replaced quickly by a more fitting design truly reflective of Ike’s modesty and humility, no memorial will be built and millions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars will be squandered,” he said.

To reach Maria Recio, call 202-383-6103 or send email to mrecio@mcclatchydc.com.

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