News & Politics

Architect Frank Gehry’s Revisions for the Troubled Eisenhower Memorial Met With Disapproval

A key member of Congress calls the new design “disappointing”; another critic cites “tremendous arrogance.”

The plot of federal land where the Eisenhower Memorial is slotted to be built. In the background is the LBJ Department of Education. The land is wedged between Independence and Maryland avenues. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

Gehry Partners, the architectural team behind the troubled Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, have resubmitted their design to the US Commission of Fine Arts with the hope that the revised plans will get the project back on track. But the new submission didn’t impress critics, including the congressman who was instrumental in blocking the memorial’s federal funding.

Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, had asked for fundamental changes to the design. “I’m trying to figure out what’s really different,” he said Tuesday night after studying the resubmission. “To me this is very disappointing. It looks like tweaks here and there. It still means Gehry has not done what Congress asked him to do—to work with all the constituents, Congress, and the family.”

Rendering of the memorial’s current design plan courtesy of Gehry Partners.

Bishop, along with members of the Eisenhower family and other opponents to the design, object in particular to the central features of Gehry’s design: a looming display of large metal mesh tapestries featuring landscapes of Eisenhower’s life, as well as tall, round columns that would support the tapestries. Both features remain in the resubmitted design plan. The innovative concept has intrigued some architecture experts, but detractors, especially the Eisenhower family, feel it’s too modern a design for Ike, a wartime general and peacetime president who was modest and traditional.

Of the submitted redesign, Bishop said, “This is not building any goodwill among people who are skeptical. It reinforces the skepticism, which is a nice way of saying what I’m thinking about this company.”

Another individual with an official connection to the project, who would speak only off the record, said of the resubmission, “They moved a few trees around and moved a few pavers. Every other aspect the CFA criticized has remained the same.” This person called it “tremendous arrogance” and said overall the existing Eisenhower Memorial, as it stands right now, is “a zombie that is bleeding taxpayer dollars.”

The new submission from Gehry is the first response from the internationally acclaimed architectural firm since a feisty CFA meeting in November at which commissioners sent Gehry’s team back to the drawing board, asking for eight revisions that included the landscape design and a building that will be used as an information center, but keeping the tapestries and columns in the overall scheme.

The new document outlines more than a half-dozen changes. “The concept of the landscape design has evolved to emphasize an urban park,” said a text that accompanies illustrations in the 74-page booklet, noting that “the groundplane has been revised and simplified.”

But while the Gehry team says it “has carefully considered the comments made by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, the Eisenhower family, the Department of Education, NCPC, CFA, and noted historians,” it asks, “How do you represent a man of such towering achievement whose modesty was one of his core values?”

Critics say the only way to meet that goal is with a complete redesign.

In January, Congress, acting on a bill from Bishop, rejected a $51 million funding request from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, effectively putting the brakes on their budget, save for $1 million that was authorized for office operating expenses. The EMC reportedly has about $30 million in the bank from earlier federal funding, according to the official connected to the project.

The memorial, to be built on a four-acre plot of land wedged between the National Air and Space Museum and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education, was authorized by Congress in 1999 with a goal for completion in 2017. But since Gehry was chosen and his design first made public there have been chronic starts and stops in the review process.

But ever since Gehry was chosen and his design plan made public, there have been starts and stops in the review process. Susan Eisenhower, a principal spokesperson for the family, called the initial design a “theme park,” and hasn’t been much impressed with revisions since.

When Congress voted on the spending bill this January it attached a stern message, in which the Eisenhower Memorial Commission was urged “to work with all constituencies—including Congress and the Eisenhower family—as partners in the planning and design process.”

In a related development, on Tuesday evening the National Capital Planning Commission released the results of a study of the durability of the controversial tapestries that was commissioned by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission and the Gehry group. In a letter to the NCPC, John Bowers, a Gehry partner, said the metal alloy that would be used, known as 317L, “has proven in our test results to have superior corrosion resistance.”

A spokesperson for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission withheld immediate comment.