The long-planned and much-loathed memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower cleared a major hurdle Thursday when the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal board that oversees Washington’s physical layout, gave final approval to the architect Frank Gehry’s design for the site.
With the vote, the biggest remaining goal is securing the $162 million needed to build the memorial on a plot of Capitol Hill between the Education Department and the National Air and Space Museum. That remains far from certain. Although only one person on the 11-person NCPC voted against approving Gerhy’s design, the dissenter was Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who runs the House Oversight Committee and has previously knocked the Eisenhower Memorial’s planning process.
Since Gehry was awarded the design contract in 2010, critics, including the Eisenhower family, have maligned many of his proposal’s features, especially metallic tapestries and bas-relief sculptures focusing more on Eiseinhower’s military exploits than his Kansas boyhood and presidency. Others have complained that by turning a one-block stretch of Maryland Ave., Southwest, into a pedestrian mall, the Eisenhower Memorial would upset the original city plan laid out by Pierre L’Enfant.
“The design limped over the finish line,” says Justin Shubow, the president of the National Civic Art Society, which has long opposed Gehry’s design. “This is the best America can do when it comes to a national memorial?”
Since its creation in 1999, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission has paid Gehry’s firm $16 million of its $40 million worth of expenditures, but its private fundraising has dried up in recent years, collecting only $450,000 over the last four years despite hiring a consultant for $1.4 million. And the current Congress is unlikely to pony up more. A draft House Appropriations bill recommends not giving the commission any additional funds and replacing its current staff, which would effectively toss out Gehry’s design.
“We’ve balanced a wide variety of ideas and visions that have led to significant changes and improvements,” Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, says in a news release. “And we have allowed the entire process to be voted on at many levels and many stages. Today, we come to the conclusion of the design process, and it’s my belief we can finish a memorial that is fitting for a man who has given so much to our freedom.”
But Shubow says Roberts shouldn’t get his hopes up, dismissing the planned memorial as the senator’s “pet project.”
“What we’re all waiting for is too see what the budget compromise is,” Shubow says. “At worst the Eisenhower Memorial Commission gets $1 million and is kept on life support for a year, and at best, the Senate agrees with the House. If that happens, we have won.”