It’s said that it’s almost impossible to stop Washington from doing something once the huge, clanking machine called the federal government is in motion. Think Obamacare. Or various wars. But it looks as if a group of critics has put the brakes on a gargantuan memorial on the National Mall honoring President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was scheduled to cost $142 million — more than what the nation spent on the memorials to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR combined.
But the real objection to “Mount Ike,” as some call the project, wasn’t its cost but its aesthetics. Peter Roff of U.S. News & World Report summed it up as being “too radical, too overdone, and too avant-garde to honor a man who was known for his humility.” The original design by architect Frank Gehry featured a statue of Ike as a boy from Abilene, Kan., who sits in the shadow of 80-foot tall transparent woven-metal “tapestries.” John Eisenhower, Ike’s only living child, has sounded the call for retreat on the project. He hopes instead, as he wrote then-senator Inouye (D., Hawaii), who was vice chairman of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, for “a green open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations from his most important sayings.”
A fresh start is also what Representative Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who once taught high-school history, is hoping to accomplish with his bill, which calls for a new design competition. For now, the old design looks dead — the House and Senate have not allocated funds this year for the construction of the memorial.
Gehry is considered one of the world’s top “starchitects,” a select group of architects whose plans are seldom challenged. He designed the innovative Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, but he had never done a monument before this one. The design struck Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s polite granddaughter, as “very, very interesting,” but she said family members “worry it’s going to leave people feeling cold” about a man she knew well as “very warm.”
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission picked Gehry’s design in 2010 after a highly opaque process. “It selected its designer before he developed a proposal, from a short list of established architects,” Sam Roche, a Miami architect who opposes the current project, wrote at Roll Call. “As a result, Gehry never faced the possibility that the commission could go to someone else if his proposal turned out to be unbuildable or too expensive.”
After selecting Gehry, the commission proceeded to stonewall the Eisenhower family for months, ignoring their objections. The commission finally coughed up Gehry-approved design changes that proposed adding two more statues of Ike and replacing the statue of him as a young boy with one of him as a West Point cadet. But Susan Eisenhower remained unsatisfied. She told lawmakers at a congressional hearing last month that she continues to find the design “unworkable.”
The American Institute of Architects is appalled that Representative Bishop would introduce legislation to abandon the Gehry design and start over. “It is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the innovative thinking for which our profession is recognized,” Robert Ivy, the association’s chief executive, wrote in a letter to Congress last month. Christopher Knight, the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, raised the inevitable specter of censorship when he accused the monument’s critics of launching “a McCarthyite attack” and “shrieking like Hecuba,” a vengeful queen in Greek mythology.
Representative Tom McClintock of California, an amateur historian of World War II, says it doesn’t surprise him that a self-appointed artistic elite is gathering together to defend the Gehry design. What these aesthetes have forgotten, he notes, is that it’s the American taxpayer who will foot most of the bill for the memorial. “Take all the other grand monuments on our National Mall; line them all up along with the design for the Eisenhower Memorial, and ask Americans what they think,” he suggests. “The reaction would be like that old Sesame Street saying, ‘Which one of these doesn’t belong with the others?’ That would be the current Eisenhower Memorial.”
As we move toward a new design competition for the memorial, some lessons are in order. The process for future memorials must be competitive and transparent, and the result must take into account the wishes of family members. Also, picking a well-known brand-peddling architect doesn’t guarantee quality: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, respected by art critics and loved by the public, was designed by Maya Lin when she was a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale; she beat out 1,441 rivals. Lin has said that she “never would have won” if the contest had not been “blind,” with designs submitted by number instead of name.
For now, the apparent winners in this latest Battle of the National Mall are the Eisenhower family — and the American people. Ike would be proud that so many stood up for their beliefs and didn’t take a bureaucracy’s decision as the final word.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting to reflect the following corrections: Congress did not eliminate all funding for the memorial for the rest of this fiscal year as was originally reported. The original design by Gehry featured Eisenhower as a boy, not a barefoot boy. The proposed new design of Eisenhower as a West Point cadet is one suggestion that has not been formally adopted by the commission.