Nobody Likes Ike’s: Why Congress Just Defunded The Eisenhower Memorial Commission

Congress has held up $142 million for the memorial on the National Mall, throwing its future into question

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Gehry Partners, LP

The original 2010 scale model for the Eisenhower memorial on the National Mall by Gehry Partners.

Pretty much everybody likes Ike. The problem is, no one seems to agree on how best to memorialize President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington D.C.

Buried in last week’s agreement to reopen the government was a tiny provision suspending funds for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which was formed in 1999 to build a memorial to the 34th president. The commission isn’t going bankrupt anytime soon—it still has $22 million on hand—but the move throws into question the future of architect Frank Gehry’s design selected by the commission in 2010.

While the project has prominent supporters in the arts and in Congress, the Eisenhower family came out against the modernist proposal—going so far as to liken it to Nazi death camps and Iron Curtains—and pressure has mounted in Congress to scrap the plan and start over, even if it means wasting the $30 million already spent on the Gehry design. “The memorial should be built and must be built,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said at a March hearing on the proposed monument. “This memorial cannot be built if it is inconsistent with the views of the people who knew our commander in chief as well as his family.”

Wrangling over Washington’s monuments is nothing new. It took more than 50 years each to build the Washington Monument and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Memorial. The newly opened Martin Luther King Jr. statue on the National Mall was heavily criticized for making the civil rights leader look, as one critic put it, like a “tin-pot dictator.” Thomas Jefferson’s Memorial took flack from his supporters, who thought Jefferson himself would find the design too obvious and pompous.

(MORE: A Memorial Day Feud: How to Remember Dwight D. Eisenhower?)

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s first task was selecting the site, which it did in 2005, after looking at 25 other options. The four-acre square is at the intersection of Maryland and Independence Avenues just off the Mall and blocks from the Capitol. The commission liked it because it because it sits at the intersection of several departments either founded or empowered by Eisenhower: the Education Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Aviation Administration, Voice of America and the Air and Space Museum. (Eisenhower founded the National Aeronautics and Space Association.)

The space was a challenge, though, divided into two large triangles—the view up Maryland Avenue to the Capitol had to remain clear, even if the road would eventually be diverted around the memorial. The square itself is also bleak, surrounded by concrete bureaucracies and parking lots. So, the commission decided the deft hand of a proven architect was needed and limited the competition to architects, a move that later left them open to accusations of rigging the competition as only 44 proposals were submitted compared to the more than 1,400 for the Vietnam Memorial. And, to be fair, it was an unproven architecture student, Maya Lin, who won that design contest. It didn’t help that the commission’s former chairman Rocco Siciliano, an assistant Labor Secretary under Eisenhower, is quoted three times in the commission minutes as hoping to attract a starchitect “like Gehry” to the project. Siciliano and Gehry had previously worked together informally on three other projects.

Gehry tackled the problem of the bleak, bifurcated space by proposing 80-foot high stone pillars holding up metal “tapestries” hanging on three sides of the square. The bureaucrats in the buildings could look through the tapestries, which depict pastoral scenes of Eisenhower’s hometown, Abilene, Kansas. At night, they light up creating the impression of glowing, undulating farmlands. Inside, Gehry added two massive bas-reliefs showing Eisenhower-the-general just before D-Day and Eisenhower-the-president working on legislation. In the center, a low stonewall is inscribed, Dwight D. Eisenhower, atop of which sits a life-sized Ike as a Westpoint cadet. “The senators were very clear in their mandate to us,” Carl Reddel, a former Air Force brigadier general and executive director of the commission, tells TIME. “They wanted something that would engage kids K-12. And what better than a young man that they could relate to? One day they might do something great like him. Eisenhower’s story is the ultimate American dream.”

On March 25, 2010, the commission unanimously selected Gehry’s design, and in September 2011, the Commission on Fine Arts, one of two federal agencies that much sign off on the memorial, unanimously gave its preliminary approval. Gehry, 84, is known for modern undulating metallic sculptures of buildings like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. He once said his work represents life that “is chaotic, dangerous and surprising.” Gehry has said he took his inspiration for the Eisenhower Memorial from a speech the then five-star general gave in Abilene, returning triumphant from World War II. Instead of bragging of his achievements, he began the heartfelt speech by ruminating: “Because no man is really a man who has lost out of himself all of the boy, I want to speak first of the dreams of a barefoot boy.”

(MORE: Eisenhower: Solider of Peace )

But a barefoot boy isn’t what Eisenhower’s descendants had in mind. And a modernist interpretation on a 1950’s president known for his common touch proved too much of a leap. In March 2011, a dozen years into the process, Eisenhower’s two granddaughters, Susan and Anne, came out against the Gehry design. Though their brother David had sat on the commission and voted for the design, he resigned and threw his weight behind his sisters’ requests that the process be reexamined. Susan even supported an unofficial contest sponsored by the National Civic Art Society, a small advocacy group opposed to modern design, which picked in June 2011 a triumphal arch as a memorial. In a House subcommittee hearing, Susan went so far as to liken the pillars to missile silos and the metal tapestries to Iron Curtains, billboards and concentration camp fences. For Gehry, whose family is originally Jewish from Poland and who lost 34 kin to concentration camps, nothing could have been more insulting.

Though the center statue of Eisenhower was never a “barefoot boy,” Gehry took the family’s concerns into consideration and aged the boy to a young man. He also made several other changes, turning what were originally bronze statutes into the stone bas-reliefs flanking the low wall. But the sticking point remains the tapestries. “We have indicated that we could work with the design if the metal curtains could be taken down,” Anne Eisenhower tells TIME. “I’m not sure Mr. Gehry would be amendable to that. But that would simplify the design to a degree that would make us happy.”

The family also questions the maintenance cost of such elaborate twisted metal. So the commission is working on studies to show how they’ll hold up under all types of extreme weather, exposing samples of the aluminum mesh to, for example, 1,000 hours of salt fog. A Park Service study estimates the memorial won’t be any more expensive to maintain than the World War II or King memorials. Like both of those, the most expensive projected cost is the bathroom plumbing. In March 2012, the commission unanimously re-endorsed Gehry’s design

Despite Gehry and the commission’s best efforts to reassure the family, support for the design has dropped in Congress on both sides of the aisle. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in June 2012 called for more time “to get it right.” Half a dozen members of Congress have asked for the project to be reviewed. Even Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican and one of eight original lawmakers tapped to serve on the commission, supported suspending the commission’s funding until “there is a resolution between the commission and the family.” The $142 million project was meant to be 80% government funded. But if Congress doesn’t restore the funding in the next fiscal year, the commission will be forced to raise the money themselves, a tough endeavor given that the Eisenhower family stands against it. Meanwhile, Issa has launched an investigation into whether the design competition was rigged for Gehry.

(MORE: The Presidency: Man of the Year)

Meant to open Memorial Day 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the memorial now will open in 2017 at the earliest. The National Capital Planning Commission, the other federal agency that must sign off on the memorial, this year asked that all environmental tests be completed before its preliminary review, delaying that process by months.

All of which could mean that the Eisenhower Memorial, if there is to be one, might be years or decades in the making and may come in a more classic, columned form the American public has come to expect on the Mall. “Eisenhower was the last president born in the 19th Century. He was the first President of the 20th Century to view satellite photos, taken from satellites he launched,” says Reddel. “This is a 21st Century memorial.” Leaders of the American Institute of Architects have argued that push to defund the project is “nothing more than an effort to intimidate the innovative thinking for which our profession is recognized.” From almost all sides, Eisenhower’s memorial has succeeded in evoking much more intense emotions than the man himself ever did.

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