Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The Eisenhower family and the memorial commission have reached a compromise—without its famed architect.
Following a standoff over the proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial that has stretched for more than five years, members of the Eisenhower family did an about-face this week, signaling their support for the design by Frank Gehry.
In a letter, Susan Eisenhower indicated her and her siblings’ unanimous support for Gehry’s vision, following some suggestions for the overall scheme. The vast woven metal tapestry that is central to the memorial should no longer depict a bare Kansas plain, for example, but rather showcase the landscape in Normandy, France, where forces under Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower landed on D-Day.
The architect himself played no role in breaking the detente. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who was brought on as the vice chair of fundraising for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission last October, brokered the deal without Gehry, according to a spokesperson for the commission. Susan Eisenhower’s letter, which is addressed to Baker, thanks him explicitly; a release from the commission says that it will “work with the memorial’s designer, Frank Gehry, to begin making the agreed-upon modifications and move the project forward with dispatch.”
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission is moving fast to get approval for Secretary Baker’s compromise. Susan Eisenhower’s letter is dated September 14. The commission has since provided its members with a resolution to endorse Secretary Baker’s modifications, along with an up-or-down ballot on the resolution. The commission is asking its members to vote on the resolution by close of business on Tuesday, September 20—site unseen. Gehry has not yet designed any of the proposed changes.
“Due to immediate time constraints, we are requesting action on this proposal by consent of the Commissioners without a meeting,” the ballot reads.
One member of the commission who had cast their vote at press time and asked to remain anonymous tells CityLab, "They’re asking us to vote on something we’ve never seen. I voted no because there were no renderings, no plans, and I couldn’t vote for what I couldn’t see.”
As far as the design is concerned, the change represents a slight backtrack toward Gehry’s original vision for the memorial. The architect intended from the start for the 440-foot-long metal tapestry to depict an episode from Eisenhower’s life. If not D-Day, then perhaps the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas—an order enforced by President Eisenhower—or the serene setting of Abilene, Kansas, the home that he loved.
The Eisenhower family’s pivot may have as much to do with Secretary Baker’s appointment as with the minor tweaks to Gehry’s design, which has been in flux since 2011. After all, Gehry already agreed to major changes in scale and format to win the approval of the National Capital Planning Commission. Two of the three tapestry panels, which Gehry designed to frame an “urban room” between Independence Avenue and Maryland Avenue, were dropped. (The central tapestry, which is essential to block out the horrendous U.S. Department of Education Building, was retained.) The sculptural plinths and statuary have evolved over umpteen iterations. The tapestry’s vista changed from Normandy to Kansas to Normandy again. Gehry, who was selected as the memorial’s designer in 2009, has never showed himself as unwilling to budge.
Instead, the Eisenhower family may have been spurred by the fact that the commission did, in fact, appear to be moving forward with dispatch—and without the their blessing. In addition to appointing Secretary Baker last fall, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission upped the number of former secretaries of state serving on its advisory board to five. They were joined by all-American luminaries Tom Brokaw and Tom Hanks. In November, the commission announced that all four living U.S. presidents were on board with the Ike Memorial.
The calendar is another factor that may have swayed the Eisenhowers: The 75th anniversary of D-Day falls on June 6, 2019. If the Eisenhower Memorial moves forward now, it may be completed in time for World War II veterans to enjoy it on this anniversary.
One holdout will still need to come to the table to get the $150 million memorial moving: Utah Republican Representative Rob Bishop, who has led the fight to strip congressional funding for the memorial’s construction and once proposed a bill to scrap Gehry’s design. (Representative Bishop’s office, the Eisenhower family, and Gehry Partners have not yet responded to requests for comment.) In the meantime, Kansas Republican Senator Pat Roberts will seek a waiver to the Commemorative Works Act that will enable the commission to begin construction with funds that are already raised. “It’s possible to start site prep and finish it, too, with cash on hand,” says a commission spokesperson.
With the family’s support—which Susan, Anne, and David Eisenhower have withheld since at least January 2012—the fundraising effort can begin in earnest. The road to consensus has been rocky. At times, California Republican Representative Darrell Issa seemed to be the only person holding the effort together. In retrospect (and assuming that all parties hold to Secretary Baker’s bargain), these minor concessions hardly amount to a justification for holding up the memorial for years. And the latest concessions were made on Gehry’s behalf, not by the architect himself.
A larger debate has loomed over the Eisenhower Memorial from the beginning. The National Civic Art Society, a small nonprofit that led the opposition to Gehry’s design, opposes modernist commemoration writ large. But wholesale obstruction misses the point, according to Architect’s Ned Cramer. “Compared to Gehry’s signature extreme geometries, the memorial design is sober and deeply rooted in the classical tradition,” he wrote in 2014.
With the assent of the National Capital Planning Commission, the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, various historians, and finally, Eisenhower’s descendants, the memorial can move forward—as long as the commission signs off and Congress approves. Critics, however, still have their doubts.
“The Eisenhower family had been such fierce critics of the gargantuan tapestry and columns, even calling the scrim an 'Iron Curtain,' and comparing it to communist art,” says Justin Shubow, the president of the National Civic Art Society. “I don’t understand why they changed their position."
Susan Eisenhower says that the compromise delivers a more appropriate memorial.
“What was most important to us was to frame the narrative to convey the reason that Dwight Eisenhower is bring memorialized,” she writes in an email. “The tapestries depicting Normandy in peacetime will symbolize Ike's wartime supreme command of Europe's liberation and his leadership in postwar America, when he secured the peace for our country and the free world.”