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Dispute over Eisenhower memorial

Family members voice concerns over design

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2012

A dispute over a memorial design featuring a statue of President Eisenhower as a barefoot boy is threatening to delay construction of a national memorial to the 34th president and leader of the Allied forces in World War II.

A congressional subcommittee is set to hear testimony Tuesday on the design of the memorial, which had been scheduled for completion by Memorial Day 2015 on a four-acre plot between the National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Department of Education.

The design features a park area and stone panels engraved with portraits from Eisenhower's military and political careers set off by 80-foot columns supporting woven metal tapestries depicting scenes from his Kansas upbringing.

But vocal opposition to the memorial's design, led by Eisenhower family members, has threatened to derail the $100 million project in large part because the lone statue inside the memorial area depicts Eisenhower as a boy.

Supporters say the design, by renowned contemporary architect Frank Gehry, was meant to capture the arc of Eisenhower's life, from humble beginnings in Abilene, Kan., to his service in the military and the presidency.

Members of the Eisenhower family object to portraying him as a barefoot boy amid humble circumstances as an unnecessary dwelling on matters other than Eisenhower's adult achievements, such as desegregating Washington. They also say it makes the memorial alienating to contemporary Americans.

"Celebrating Eisenhower's roots rather than his accomplishments risks isolating Ike from contemporary visitors, especially those from urban industrialized parts of the country and immigrant communities," Anne Eisenhower, one of Eisenhower's granddaughters, said in a January letter on behalf of the family to the National Capital Planning Commission.

Another of Eisenhower's granddaughters, Susan, also has been critical of the design and is expected to testify before the hearing of the House subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands Tuesday.

Controversies over memorial depictions are nothing new.

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, which opened last year, was criticized for its depiction of King with a cross-armed posture that some thought made the civil rights leader appear confrontational and for a paraphrased quote that some said made him sound arrogant.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial also was hotly debated before it opened in 1997, with some questioning whether the president who went to great lengths to conceal his polio affliction should be memorialized by a statue depicting him in a wheelchair.

But the fervor over the Eisenhower memorial appears set to eclipse previous debates, with members of Congress lining up for and against the design and the project appearing destined for what could be indefinite delays.

Origin of the memorial

The plan for an Eisenhower memorial, the seventh national memorial to honor a U.S. president, was approved in 1999 by President Clinton.

Authorizing legislation dictated that "an appropriate permanent memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower should be created to perpetuate his memory and his contributions to the United States," and Congress formed a commission to oversee the memorial's development.

Retired Brig. Gen. Carl Reddel, executive director of the 12-member Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, said in 2006 that the commission "wants this memorial in its totality to tell the Eisenhower story, which is a great story, and tell it in the context of the American story."

Eisenhower graduated from West Point and served in World War I before being named commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces during World War II. As president from 1953 to 1961, he is credited with creating the Interstate Highway System and beginning the security policies that led to the peaceful resolution of the Cold War decades later.

To execute the commission's vision for a memorial honoring his achievements, members in 2009 chose Mr. Gehry from a competition of 44 design firms. Mr. Gehry's contemporary-style buildings include Los Angeles' Disney Concert Hall and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

At a March 25, 2010, meeting of the memorial commission, David Eisenhower, then a member of the memorial commission, described Mr. Gehry's design of his grandfather's memorial as "very striking," according to meeting minutes.

The initial design did not include the child statue of Eisenhower.

Mr. Gehry presented the specifics of the design at a commission meeting July 12, 2011.

"The overall effect would be designed for maximum impact on future generations of children," he said at the meeting.

Sen. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican and a member of the memorial commission, spoke in favor of the design, calling it a vision of the heartland brought to Washington, D.C.

"The vision conveyed the unmistakable message that people from humble beginnings could rise to world stature," he said, according to meeting minutes.

Controversy ensues

The release of the design choice sparked a public battle between supporters who said the memorial would reflect Eisenhower's roots and his values, and opponents who said it did not do justice to his accomplishments.

After the Eisenhower family voiced its objections, David Eisenhower resigned from the memorial commission in December. In January, the family wrote the National Capital Planning Commission, which must give its blessing to the design, asking for an "indefinite postponement" pending a review.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican and a member of the memorial commission, said he appreciated the family's comments but that they were not the project's only stakeholders.

"There's no doubt that Anne Eisenhower is calling around and making her concerns known. I respect the family's concerns, and the commission has asked for their input," he said. "But ultimately, it's not the family memorial to Eisenhower, it's the national memorial to Eisenhower."

But the family's criticism was enough to prompt Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, to issue a letter to the planning commission last month calling the design "inappropriate" and supporting the Eisenhower family's call for a delay.

That letter was followed by similar notes from Republican Reps. Daniel E. Lungren of California and Aaron Schock of Illinois, also asking the planning commission to reopen discussions about the memorial.

In addition, the D.C.-based nonprofit National Civic Art Society, a group whose website says its mission is "to lay the foundation for more beautiful and meaningful monuments, memorials, civic buildings, and public spaces," has emerged as a vocal critic of the design.

The group's concerns include that Eisenhower has been "dwarfed" by Mr. Gehry's large-scale design, said Justin Shubow, the group's president.

"One of the most important things is the scale," Mr. Shubow said. "It appears to be more of a monument to the architect than to Eisenhower."

Other style-related concerns include that the Mr. Gehry's plan follows a modernist style that is contrary to Eisenhower's own persona.

The group, which also is scheduled to appear at the congressional hearing Tuesday, also claims the competitive design-selection process was streamlined in Mr. Gehry's favor.

The various disagreements over the design prompted Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to write a letter to Rocco Siciliano, chairman of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Committee, on Feb. 29 to discuss the conflict.

"It has come to my attention … that there are serious concerns with the current memorial design — including objections from Eisenhower family members," Mr. Issa said in the letter. "While this is not the first memorial to receive criticism from the relatives of the individual(s) honored, I believe it is important that the views of the relatives be taken seriously."

Mr. Issa requested copies of all architectural designs that had been submitted to the commission and "a detailed description" of the process the committee went through to choose Mr. Gehry's design. He also asked the committee to "take reasonable steps" to save all documents related to Mr. Gehry's designs.

Additional time

The memorial commission declined to have any of its office staff comment on Tuesday's oversight hearing before the event.

The commission announced last week that it wants to postpone an April 5 meeting with the planning commission "to accommodate requests for further information." Mr. Thornberry said it would also allow them additional time to be in discussion with the Eisenhower family.

"We fully trust the federal design review process currently in place," said Gen. Reddel, the commission's executive director, in a news release. "We firmly believe that this process will provide all parties an opportunity to review the commission's preferred design."

Mr. Thornberry said he thought too much focus had been put on the child statue and metal tapestries rather than on what he considers the main part of the memorial complex: the stone panels depicting Eisenhower as an adult.

"That is the center — not the statue," he said, adding that the design continues to change. A water feature that had been included in the original design was removed and the child statue was added later.

"Details of the design have evolved over time, and they can evolve some more," he said.

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