News & Politics

A Federal Review Panel Hands the Planned Eisenhower Memorial a “Surprising” Setback

The National Capital Planning Commission wants to see key modifications in the design.

Robyn Hage, a school teacher from Ohio, was one of 21 individuals who made public comments about the Eisenhower Memorial at the Thursday meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission. She said that “the youth of today need positive role models” such as Eisenhower. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

The memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, planned for a four-acre site adjacent to the National Air and Space Museum and in the works since 1999, got hit with a setback on Thursday when, after five hours of testimony, the National Capital Planning Commission voted down architect Frank Gehry’s preliminary site and building plans. By a vote of seven to three, the NCPC commissioners asked the design firm, Gehry Partners, to modify several elements of the proposed memorial, including the highly controversial 80-foot high stainless-steel tapestries and their ten-foot round and equally tall support columns. The vote upheld the Executive Director’s Recommendation, a 50-page report that called for disapproval based on “the proposed scale and configuration of the tapestries.”

It wasn’t all bad news, though. The NCPC reported that intensive tests of the alloy that will be used in the tapestries proved they are durable and meet the criteria of the Commemorative Works Act. NCPC chairman L. Preston Bryant Jr., a senior vice president at Richmond’s McQuireWoods public affairs consulting firm, said, “The commission continues to support a modern and innovative approach to honoring” Eisenhower, but “we encourage the applicant to make changes based upon the feedback provided at today’s meeting, and look forward to seeing a revised preliminary design.” The commission wants Gehry to show that the tapestry materials will be further refined, and wants details on the maintenance regimen and operational protocols that will protect the public when snow and ice accumulate on the tapestries. These last points, dealing with sustainability and safety, are central in the Eisenhower family’s continued opposition to the Gehry design.

The NCPC is one of two federal government agencies—the other being the Commission of Fine Arts—that must give the Eisenhower Memorial full, final approval before it can be built. Victoria Tigwell, deputy director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, noted at the meeting that it has been almost three years since the EMC and the Gehry team appeared before NCPC for approvals. “We hope absence makes the heart grow fonder,” she said. That was before 21 individuals, including Representative Aaron Shock, made public statements about the memorial design, before Representative Darrell Issa, an NCPC ex officio commissioner, proposed a new rule calling for increased accountability, and before the commissioners voted for the staff report recommending disapproval.

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission later issued a statement calling the NCPC decision “surprising” but said they will work with the NCPC to move forward. A lobbying effort that opposes the memorial design, Right By Ike, said the NCPC action means “we’ll need to replace a memorial commission that is still spending public money to promote a failed design, or force it to hold the kind of public design competition it should have started with.” Another vocal opponent of the design, Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Arts Society, called the NCPC vote a “total defeat” of the Frank Gehry design. A more neutral observer, who is deeply involved in the memorial process and asked to remain anonymous, offered this insight: “It’s not a total defeat, [but] it puts the design process at the mercy of a few NCPC staffers—an odd place for this process to be.” And probably an odd place for Frank Gehry to find one of his designs.

The meeting addressed various issues in the NCPC report, which stated that in addition to issues with the tapestries, the proposed memorial design did not meet three of seven “adopted design principles” that are key to the commission approving the memorial site: preserving views of the Capitol from the site, respecting the building lines and rights-of-way in the site vicinity, and reflecting the principles of the L’Enfant Plan for the city in how the memorial relates to adjacent buildings, including the LBJ Department of Education, which it fronts.

The effort to design and build a memorial to Eisenhower has dragged on for so long now that Issa came down to the meeting from Capitol Hill for only the time it took to introduce an amendment that would require the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to give the NCPC updates every two months. The amendment was approved; the first routine updates must start in June. (He returned later for the commission vote.) Issa said this was to “move [the process] along,” adding, “I do believe this is a project that can go forward.” However, he noted, “we are running into a very tough time to bring forth funds for authorized and longstanding projects. If we allow this project to go on much longer without progress, the Congress will continue to strip away [funds] and it will be an approved and not funded project.” He said, “I can’t object to my colleagues defunding” the memorial last year.

Gehry did not attend the meeting but was represented by several members of his staff, including partner Craig Webb, who, in response to the EDR’s view that the design missed the mark on some design principles, said, “We believe we have fulfilled the seven design principles, including the three disputed by staff.” He also defended the columns, saying they had been reduced to “the minimum size required to support the tapestries.” Webb’s exasperation was echoed by Dan Feil, executive architect of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, who called the NCPC report “deeply flawed.” He said, “It shrinks the design principles to a set of absolutes, each with only one correct response.”

Representative Schock, an Illinois Republican and a member of the Ways and Means Committee who early on announced his opposition to the Gehry design, reinforced his objections. “The current design is confusing,” he said. “One must wonder if this is a memorial park rather than a memorial.” He would like to see the Gehry design scrapped and the launch of a “new competition open to all Americans, not a few modernists.”