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Frank Gehry’s Way or the Highway for the Eisenhower Memorial

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission could decide the fate of his design at a Wednesday meeting, the first in more than year.

Architect Frank Gehry may soon be put out of his misery. At a meeting of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission this week, the 12-member group of senators, representatives, and three presidential appointees will decide whether Gehry’s signature design element—metal tapestries hung on tall columns—will play any part in the park-like tribute planned for a spot near the National Mall.

One option on the table at the meeting Wednesday on Capitol Hill is a modified design, recently presented by Gehry’s firm, that reduces the original three tapestries to one. 

But the nuclear option, recommended in a letter to the commission from Ike’s granddaughters, Anne and Susan Eisenhower, is “a simpler design that encompasses the memorial core that has already been developed”—that is, one that would be to scrap the metal tapestries that make the memorial design uniquely Gehry.

If that were to happen, it looks like Gehry will pack up his design schemes and walk.

“Gehry Partners has indicated that it will not present or associate its name with a design that does not include the tapestry and column elements and will withdraw from the project,” wrote the EMC’s executive director, Carl Reddel, in his own letter to the commission.

The protagonists in the 15-year-old drama likely would not miss one another. In their appeal to the commission, the Eisenhower sisters laid out a third option—“a complete redesign, which is open to all,” adding, with what has to be humor, “including Gehry Partners.”

Since he first introduced his design in 2010, Gehry has reworked its elements, in many ways watering it down. In an interview with Washingtonian, architecture critic and Gehry biographer Paul Goldberger said, “Gehry is remarkable for his willingness to work with clients. It has hardly been ‘It’s my way or the highway.’” 

The tapestries have been a source of conflict since Gehry first presented them. While the scheme was unanimously approved by the commission, the Eisenhower family balked and were backed up by proponents of more classical design. David Eisenhower, Ike’s grandson and the only family member on the EMC, resigned his position and has not commented since.

A third voice to weigh in before the meeting belonged to Representative Darrell Issa, a congressional member of the National Capital Planning Commission and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has held its own hearings on the Eisenhower Memorial. Like the Eisenhower family, Issa supports approving either the modified design with one tapestry and fewer columns or “the core of the Gehry design without any tapestries or columns.” 

Issa noted that many millions of dollars have been funded for the memorial since it was first authorized in 1999, and  “the overall cost is quickly becoming one of the primary concerns about the project, resulting in Congress’s decision not to appropriate additional funding.”

The EMC meeting is open to the public. It starts at 4 PM at the Reserve Officers Association Building at 1 Constitution Avenue, Northeast. As to whether there will be a vote, a commission spokesperson said, “There will be a briefing. We’ll see where the commissioners move from there.” 

Find Carol Ross Joynt on Twitter at @caroljoynt.

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