Social & Domestic Issues

Monumental Mistake: Eisenhower Memorial

Monumental Mistake: Eisenhower Memorial
View of the Eisenhower Memorial from the historic Maryland Avenue cartway. Image courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP, May 2012

It has been described as sentimental kitsch, a “McMonument” flanked by Soviet-style iron curtains with towering columns that are reminiscent of missile silos.

The proposed monument to honor Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th U.S. president and supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during WWII, has also been labeled as sterile and beneath the great man’s dignity.

Critics say the concrete and limestone tribute will clash with the classical designs of other noble monuments along the national mall that are cast in marble or bronze.

And integral parts of the controversial design by celebrity architect Frank Gehry would be fashioned with gnarled industrial steel, reminding some of Nazi death camps.

Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, has been a leading critic of the monument’s design, and calls it a hollow temple to nothingness.

“It’s a post-modern eyesore that clashes with our tradition of presidential memorials,” Shubow said.

Eisenhower’s family is not delighted with it either.

When asked what her grandfather would think of the design, Susan Eisenhower, the family spokeswoman, told Human Events “He would be perplexed by it.”

Congress authorized the memorial in 1999 and the four-acre site, chosen in 2005, lies south of the National Air and Space Museum and north of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building, adjacent to the National Mall.

Gehry was announced as the lead designer in 2009, following a closed competition of select entrants, and a year later the controversial design was selected. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission planned to break ground this fall, but continued opposition could force a delay beyond the 2015 completion date.

Shubow says the initial design showed titanic columns towering over a life-size statue of Eisenhower as a young, barefoot boy, sitting on a plank.

“Try to imagine a steel screen that is the length of a city block and up to 80 feet high, so huge it would dwarf the Hollywood sign,” Shubow said. “And that screen is held up with enormous pillars … each like its own building 80 feet high by 12 feet. The imagery on the screen is supposedly of the Abilene, Kansas, landscape, but what it is are trees in winter without leaves. I think most people understand winter and bleak scenes like that as an allegory for death. It’s not optimistic. It’s not an image of promise.”

Holocaust victims express outrage

It’s not just art critics and the family who say the memorial should be completely redesigned. Eisenhower says she has been contacted by several people whose families’ lives were torn apart by Nazi Germany, and for them, the memorial evokes sinister memories.

A woman whose mother survived Auschwitz told Eisenhower that the giant metal mesh scrims reminded her of the chain link fences in the death camps.

Added Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants: it was General Eisenhower, as commander of the liberating armies, who “enabled my parents to live.”

Eisenhower first brought those concerns to Capitol Hill in March when she testified before the House Natural Resources Committee.

“Eisenhower’s professional assignments carried none of the romantic notion that is embodied in the current memorial concept and design,” Eisenhower said. “He was the person tapped to end the horrors of a Nazi-occupied Europe and later to lead the United States and her allies to halt communist aggression and avoid nuclear Armageddon. The man we celebrate is not a dreamy boy, but a real man who faced unthinkable choices, took personal responsibility and did his duty–with modesty and humanity.”

Some design changes made

Some changes to the design were made last month and the Eisenhower family says it’s a good start, but they are still concerned about the giant screens and the steel tapestry that uses questionable materials that might not stand up to the test of time.

The billboard-sized tapestries of woven stainless steel mesh supported on the colonnade of limestone will now depict images of Eisenhower´s life. Images carved into stone would depict Eisenhower as president, a WWII hero, and with soldiers before the invasion of Normandy. The statue of Eisenhower will now feature him as a teenager, life-sized, but not on a pedestal, looking forward to his future.

“I think he would be puzzled by the narrative of a young man looking to his future life—this is a very contemporary notion, dreaming about the future,” Eisenhower said. “We never heard him talk in those terms, it was always about service to one’s country.”

“The thrust of the Eisenhower memorial should be around the period in which he led the great forces, he led the liberation of Europe and the fight against tyranny in the Second World War and Cold War,” Eisenhower said.

“The context of a person’s life really matters. I just don’t think we have the right narrative at the moment, and the design modifications unveiled several weeks ago really did not speak to this concept. It spoke to drawing more attention to specific design elements,” Eisenhower said.

“We need something that inspires a sense of leadership and service. What it currently lacks is an inspiring theme. Just to grow up and do something important with your life—that kind of story line might be very appropriate for other figures. Young people looking at the memorial will be hard pressed to become five star generals,” Eisenhower said.

The family wants to be sensitive to the different impressions the current design inspires and sensitive to those directly affected by the Holocaust.

“He has to be put in the context of his times. If those scrims mean something negative that he fought against, we have to be sensitive to that,” Eisenhower said. “[The family] has something, I think, to offer on the questions of his personality and his likes and dislikes, but at the end of the day, it is America’s memorial and our gift to future generations.”

The Eisenhower family said the memorial should be simple, made of sustainable materials that can withstand corrosive conditions, and affordable.

The cost has skyrocketed

Already the cost has skyrocketed to $142 million, with an estimated $19 million to be spent on design and artist fees. The bulk of the cost, 80 percent, would be paid for by taxpayer dollars, the rest from private donations.

In comparison, Shubow says the Washington Monument was built in 1885 at a cost of $1.87 million dollars—or the equivalent of more than $44 million in 2010 dollars. The Lincoln Memorial erected in 1922 cost nearly $4 million, but in 2010 would cost more than $46 million while the memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt built in 1997 cost $48 million, nearly $65 million in 2010 dollars.

“The memorial to President Eisenhower has gained significant attention and in my opinion, the process has failed to achieve a design with a consensus of support,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, said at a June 1 hearing.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is demanding that documents be turned over to his panel to explain why and how the General Services Administration chose the artist.

Salazar appointed mediator

The divisions prompted Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar to intervene on June 7 to announce that he will act as a mediator between the family and the Eisenhower Memorial Commission before it goes to a vote by the Commission of Fine Arts scheduled for June 21 and the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) set for July 12.

In response to Salazar’s move, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission issued a statement reiterating its goal “to create a memorial that appropriately memorializes President Eisenhower using a diligent and thoughtful process.”

“We appreciate that Frank Gehry has been extremely open to listening to the concerns of all stakeholders in the evolution of his handsome design. We want to make sure that any outstanding questions are answered as the process moves forward. We look forward to working with the Department of Interior to accomplish this while avoiding additional costs and excessive delays that would deny our nation’s dwindling population of WWII veterans the opportunity to experience the memorial in their lifetimes,” the commission said.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who sits on the Eisenhower Memorial commission, says the recent changes have greatly improved the design.

“I am perfectly satisfied with the general design, but there are still details that need to be worked out. They are still testing on the screens to make sure they are durable, and the specific wording that would be placed on the memorial from Eisenhower’s speeches have not been decided yet. I think the design is still evolving but the general layout is certainly something I am satisfied with,” Thornberry said.

A decision on the final design will likely be made in September.

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