The Eisenhower Memorial Commission unveiled significant changes today to the design of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. The revisions proposed by the memorial’s designer, Frank Gehry, FAIA, include new statues representing the physical figure of President Eisenhower. The new site plan leaves other features, including steel tapestries depicting the President’s home of Abilene, Kan., unchanged.
During a meeting of the memorial commission today, Gehry Partners architects Meaghan Lloyd and John Bowers, AIA, presented a letter from Gehry, who could not be in attendance at the meeting.
“I have very seriously considered the comments made by my Commissioners, the Eisenhower family, the Department of Education, NCPC [National Capital Planning Commission], CFA [Commission of Fine Arts], and noted historians,” Gehry’s letter read. “It is a process that I think is vital to the success of any endeavor and one that was necessary to make sense of sometimes contradictory characterizations of President Eisenhower. How do you represent a man of such towering achievement whose modesty was one of his core values?”
In Gehry’s revised design, heroic-scale sculptures take the place of bas reliefs representing President Eisenhower’s career as president of the U.S. and Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II. One sculpture depicts President Eisenhower as he appears in the familiar 1966 Yousuf Karsh photo titled “The Elder Statesman”: one hand on his hip, the other leaning on a vast globe. Another set of sculptures depicts his military leadership, representing the Supreme Allied Commander as he speaks to soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division before they parachute into Normandy. (The soldiers also appear as sculptures.)
In this design, the sculptures will appear at one-and-a-half human scale, or approximately 9 feet tall. Cantilevered stone blocks bearing inscriptions from President Eisenhower’s life will frame the sculpture.
Perhaps the single greatest design change is the statue of President Eisenhower as a youth—a feature of the design that has drawn recent criticism
“I feel like I’ve known the Eisenhower family for 25 years in the last 3 months,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who spoke before the assembled commission about the centrality of Abilene in both President Eisenhower’s life and in Gehry’s design. “I really appreciate that Mr. Gehry has endeavored to capture this in his design. Ike loved Abilene, Kansas. He came from Abilene, Kansas. His roots were Abilene, Kansas,” Sen. Roberts said. “Without the elements specific to that, the tapestries, it could be anywhere in the United States.”
Sen. Roberts described the plan as “evolving,” but added, “I think it’s very close. It has my support.”
Others on the commission echoed his enthusiasm. “Over time, the Memorial has gotten better,” said Rep. William “Mac” Thornberry, R-Texas. “I’m very supportive of the changes and very grateful for the Gehry team’s willingness to listen to input.” Another commissioner, legislative affairs specialist Susan Banes Harris, praised the testing of the materials for the tapestries and said, “I feel that we’re ready to move forward.”
“In his [Eisenhower’s] case, he was both a great general and a great president, and I think we are very, very close to a final decision here,” said commissioner and corporate communications executive Alfred Geduldig. “And it looks like a realization of the dreams of the commission for 12 years.”
“America has one weakness. We seem to forget soon,” said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, the ranking congressional member of the commission. Sen. Inouye said that, on the 50th anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, a poll of high school students revealed that less than half could name the correct date : Dec. 7, 1941. “I believe it is in our best interest and in our national interest that this memorial is completed to remind Americans and our next generation of Americans what we had to go through. Otherwise it’s going to be forgotten.”
At least one dissenting voice was present at the hearing: the National Civic Art Society, which has condemned the design in various forums, including in testimony provided to Congress. Representatives of the organization, a consortium of classical architects and members of conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, have objected to such elements of the design as the metal tapestries and a statue depicting President Eisenhower as a child.
“I have yet to find a single person who likes it,” said architect and NCAS vice-chairman Milton Grenfell, who described the tapestries as “iron curtains” and called the design “the eyesore memorial.”
Before the conclusion of the meeting, commission chairman and World War II veteran Rocco C. Siciliano—who has defended the design against its critics—called Lloyd forward to praise her and the rest of the Gehry team for their work and asked her for final comments from the design team. “I think we’re very honored and very pleased with where we’ve gotten with the design,” Lloyd said. “For us, it’s been very gratifying—all the disparate voices have led us to understand this complicated character.”
For his own part, Gehry had special praise for President Eisenhower.
“The memory of Eisenhower deserves the best that we all can deliver to help future generations understand the impact of this great leader on everything we are as a nation,” his letter read. “I would be proud to wear an ‘I Like Ike’ button every day for the rest of my life.”