- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2014

A memorial planned to honor one of the great American leaders of the 20th century has instead become a monument to government waste.

In 1999 Congress authorized building a Washington memorial to honor Dwight D. Eisenhower for his service as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and his guidance of the country as its 34th president.

Fifteen years later the project has already cost American taxpayers more than $65 million. And quarrels between the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission on the one hand and Congress and the Eisenhower family on the other hand mean that there’s a real possibility that no memorial will ever be built and the money will have gone for naught.

The commission, the body in charge of the memorial’s “nature, design, construction and location,” previously devoured $41 million of the funds and is on pace to spend the rest of the $65 million allotment from Congress without ever building a monument.

Some members of the commission — which is composed of four citizens appointed by the president, four members of the House of Representatives and four senators — are now lobbying for an additional $50 million in taxpayer funding.

Bruce Cole, a member of the commission who has been critical of the spending, calls the process behind the Eisenhower memorial “the classic definition of a Washington boondoggle.”

The final cost of the monument is now estimated to reach $150 million. In contrast, the Lincoln Memorial cost $47 million to build, adjusted for inflation, according to research by the National Civic Art Society. The expansive Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, with five water features, four open-air “rooms” and numerous statues and sculptures spread across nearly 8 acres, cost a comparatively modest $65 million.

For taking $65 million from the pockets of taxpayers with absolutely nothing to show for it, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission has been awarded the Golden Hammer, a weekly mark of shame for egregious examples of wasteful spending of tax dollars.

Celebrity architect

Rampant spending and interminable delays associated with the monument are rooted in the commission’s decision to award the memorial’s design contract to celebrated avant-garde architect Frank Gehry. The selection of Mr. Gehry’s design was fraught with issues, including special treatment for the celebrity architect, a House Committee on Natural Resources majority staff report about the project found.

The report’s authors determined that Mr. Gehry may have been improperly chosen to design the memorial because his submission failed to meet Congress and the commission’s original aesthetic goals. Today, eight years after the original design criteria were established, Mr. Gehry’s plan still fails to meet them. A design jury that evaluated the design proposals even recommended against accepting Mr. Gehry’s proposal.

His design was chosen, nonetheless, partially because “the factors used to select the designer were weighted in a way that benefited a well-known designer such as Gehry,” according to the report.

The chairman of the commission, Rocco C. Siciliano, who served as a special assistant to President Eisenhower, declined to speak on the record, citing ill health.

Carl Reddel, a retired Air Force general who serves as the commission’s executive director, said Mr. Gehry was the ideal choice for a designer of the Eisenhower memorial given the president’s “international constituency.”

“Frank Gehry is the most celebrated architect in the world,” Mr. Reddel said, adding that the name will appeal to “many different stakeholders nationally and internationally” such as “people from WWII ally countries and early NATO members.”

John S.D. Eisenhower, the president’s son, who died late last year, requested that his father be remembered “with an Eisenhower Square that is a green open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations from his most important sayings.”

Design criticism

Mr. Gehry’s design, however, ignores these wishes.

The architect’s colossal proposal features a series of 80-foot-tall stone and steel columns that a member of the National Capital Planning Commission said looked like something out of the “latter scenes of ‘Planet of the Apes.’” The columns would hold massive metal tapestries “composed of multiple 3-foot-by-15-foot panels featuring twisted, bent and welded stainless steel wiring” that “when hung together, depict barren trees that are intended to depict the plains of Kansas,” according to the Committee on Natural Resources report.

Opponents of the design fear the columns could obstruct views of the nearby Capitol, and the metal tapestries would require costly maintenance and have to be replaced occasionally.

Members of the Eisenhower family oppose the metal tapestries because they “would be a literal ‘iron curtain’ and are evocative [of] Cold War era Communist iconography,” the report claims.

John S.D. Eisenhower believed “the scope and scale of [Mr. Gehry’s design] is too extravagant and it attempts to do too much. On the one hand it presumes a great deal of prior knowledge of history on the part of the average viewer. On the other, it tries to tell multiple stories. In my opinion, that is best left to museums.”

Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, testified to Congress that her family “thinks the design is flawed in concept and overreaching in scale.”

Against the Eisenhower family’s wishes, the commission paid Mr. Gehry’s firm $16.4 million for the design and went to work shoehorning the massive memorial in a small plaza just south of the National Mall, across the street from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

A public outcry about the memorial’s size and design, as well as concern over the commission’s apparent disregard for the Eisenhower family’s wishes, however, have ground the project to a halt.

“Even the memorials we now regard as great today didn’t have unanimous support in their day,” said Victoria Tigwell, the deputy executive director at the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.

Federal regulations prevent a construction project from beginning until all funding is in place. The rule is a safeguard against projects sitting half-finished for years. In order for that funding threshold to be met, the commission needs to raise another $85 million.

Congressional indifference

The commission is currently seeking $50 million in additional public funding from Congress, but federal lawmakers want nothing to do with spending more tax dollars on Mr. Gehry’s controversial monument design.

The current design for the Eisenhower Memorial is a “rare exception where there is true bipartisan agreement,” said Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society. “Democrats don’t want it; Republicans don’t want it. It doesn’t have a single champion in Congress.”

The House of Representatives voted earlier this year to withhold any additional funding for the monument during the 2015 fiscal year.

It appears that any additional federal money for the project is unlikely unless the design is changed to something more reflective of the Eisenhower family’s vision for the memorial.

“Would [critics] rather see no Eisenhower memorial at all than have this one?” asked Ms. Tigwell.

“The fear is that the commission will spend down all its remaining appropriated money on the Gehry design, and the worst will happen: No fitting memorial to a great American and no will to start over,” said Mr. Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Fundraising difficulties

In addition to hoping for another $50 million in tax dollars from Congress, the commission planned to raise $35 million from private donors to underwrite a portion of the memorial’s construction costs. The commission spent $1.2 million on a consulting firm to help raise private funds. To date, those efforts have resulted in just $448,000 in donations.

Still, Mr. Reddel remains optimistic about raising money for the project. “As [potential donors] find out how Gehry is bringing the heathland to the capital, we believe we will be able to raise the additional private funding,” Mr. Reddel said.

“According to federal regulation, many more dollars — in the neighborhood of $80 million — will have to be in place before a single shovel of earth can be turned,” Mr. Cole points out. “All this money has to come from the taxpayers’ pockets because, in over a decade, the commission has raised less than $500,000 in private donations.”

Critics claim that the controversy surrounding the monument has made the project toxic for foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals who would typically help to bankroll such an endeavor.

In October, a small group of commissioners met and agreed to slightly alter Mr. Gehry’s design, including removing two of the metal tapestries and eliminating several of the columns in order to make the monument less obtrusive. Thus far, those changes have failed to make Mr. Gehry’s design any more palatable for the Eisenhower family, members of Congress and potential donors.

“There is no way that any version of the [Gehry] design will ever get funded,” Mr. Shubow said.

In the meantime, taxpayers are still being forced to spend $1 million a year funding the nine-person staff that oversees the day-to-day operations of the commission.

“From its K Street aerie, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission staff is wasting yet more money pushing Frank Gehry’s bizarre design — something that Congress has refused to fund and that has already cost the public north of $40 million dollars, with no end in sight,” Mr. Cole said.

Mr. Cole and Mr. Shubow both think a fitting memorial that conforms with the wishes of Eisenhower’s family can be designed and built with the approximately $24 million the commission has yet to burn through.

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