Kansans may gain a bigger voice in the stalled effort to memorialize President Dwight Eisenhower in Washington, D.C. Last month Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas took over as chairman of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, created by Congress in 1999 to oversee design and construction of a memorial.
The commission planned to dedicate it this Memorial Day but instead hasn’t even started construction, thanks to controversy over a famous architect’s unusual design, which has left it without federal funding since 2012. Nevertheless the Eisenhower Memorial Commission has refused to reconsider the design — a policy it should change under Roberts’ new leadership and with input from Kansans. To get Ike’s memorial built, we need to redesign it.
This drastic step is necessary because the current design has become too controversial to build—an improper tribute to a leader who fought and governed through consensus. By contrast the design unveiled five years ago by architect Frank Gehry has divided public opinion ever since. It depicts President Eisenhower as a child adjacent to gigantic metal screens that recall the architect’s own work rather than past presidential memorials.
Many have called the design inappropriate, including lawmakers and President Eisenhower’s own family. His son John wrote to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission that “we as a family cannot support the Eisenhower Memorial as it is currently designed — in concept, scope, or scale” — and asked that lawmakers refrain from building “such an expensive memorial” with public funds.
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Indeed its exorbitant cost is another reason Gehry’s design is so controversial, and so out of keeping with Eisenhower’s legacy, which includes careful stewardship of the public purse. According to early procurement documents, the memorial was planned to cost between $55 million and $75 million, more or less in step with the memorials to Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson, all of which were built for less than $50 million in today’s dollars. The budget justification published by the commission in 2015 (to support a request Congress did not grant) stated that building Gehry’s design will cost nearly $144 million dollars.
The selection of Gehry was suspect from the beginning. The process departed radically from standard practice for designing national memorials, through public competitions that are open to everyone and that consider designs anonymously. A Congressional investigation found last summer that the selection process the memorial commission used instead —it sought designers, not design ideas, and was limited to registered architects — was manipulated to favor a “star architect” like Gehry. The commission chairman who oversaw this compromised process has close personal and professional ties to Gehry, having also led the symphony orchestra that awarded him an earlier commission for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
The commission’s radical departure from proven public process and fiscal restraint has made the Eisenhower Memorial a symbol of the bureaucratic waste and abuse of power its subject railed against. Organizers of the next national memorial in Washington—to World War I—just announced it will be designed through the usual public competition, open to anyone.
President Eisenhower deserves no less. Public competitions are standard practice because they build consensus through public participation. Already that sounds like a more fitting tribute to Dwight Eisenhower.
Sam Roche writes on architecture and urban planning. He is the spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial, at www.rightbyike.org.