The irony would not be lost on Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man of integrity, simple tastes, and decisive action, that the commission established to create a memorial in his honor is characterized by backscratching, apologetics for avant-gardism, and bureaucratic torpor. Fifteen years after the commission was established, eager to settle on and build a memorial to the victor of the European Theater before the Greatest Generation disappeared, it might soon break ground — on a taxpayer-funded design that will prove an affront not only to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., but to the great American it is supposed to honor.
The Frank Gehry–designed memorial has been roundly criticized since its unveiling in 2012. Billboard-like metal “tapestries” depicting scenes from Eisenhower’s life, accompanied by eight-story round columns, surround a statue of Eisenhower as a military cadet (which replaced the despised original figure: Ike as barefoot farm boy, intended to channel his speech to Kansans after returning from the war), all set in a park on Maryland Avenue in view of the U.S. Capitol. The jury that evaluated Gehry’s entry in the original was unimpressed; one described it as a “ruin in advance.” But the jury’s call for additional entries, having found that “none of the visions [in the design competition] expressed the whole essence of Eisenhower,” was ignored.
In a scathing report — “A Five-Star Folly: An Investigation into the Cost Increases, Construction Delays, and Design Problems That Have Been a Disservice to the Effort to Memorialize Dwight D. Eisenhower” – issued in July, the House Committee on Natural Resources claimed that the process used to select Gehry was “weighted” in his favor. It would not be unthinkable. While the Eisenhower Memorial Commission is nominally composed of four members of the House, four senators, and four citizens appointed by the president, the day-to-day operations are the task of nine staffers under the direction of Rocco Siciliano, the nonagenarian former special assistant to President Eisenhower who was vice chairman of the Los Angeles Philharmonic when it chose Gehry to design its Walt Disney Concert Hall. Siciliano suggested Gehry for the Eisenhower project as early as 2001.
Perhaps the most vocal opponents of Gehry’s design are the Eisenhower family. “The mandate is to honor Eisenhower, and that is not being done in this current design,” Anne Eisenhower, one of the president’s granddaughters, said in 2012. “Or, shall we say, it is being done in such a small scale in relation to the memorial that it is dwarfed” — the clear insinuation being that the memorial does more to honor Gehry than anyone else.
Yet after a series of tweaks (which critics contend make the design in fact worse), the Gehry design has received approval from the National Capitol Planning Commission and preliminary approval from the Commission for Fine Arts. Now the Memorial Commission is turning to Congress to finance construction, which, according to law regulating building on the Mall, can begin only when a project is completely financed. So in addition to the $65 million that Congress has already appropriated to the project since 1999, the commission is seeking at least $50 million more. And, this being Washington, additional requests in the future are more than likely. While House leaders are opposed to allocating further money to the Gehry design, Kansas senator Pat Roberts has proved an unlikely supporter. And in a multitrillion-dollar budget, what is $50 million more?
But the realization of the Gehry design would be a failing — and not just for the aesthetic life of America’s capital city. It would exonerate the cronyism and progressive pseudo-sensibilities that resulted in the Gehry design in the first place; the bureaucratic insulation that has secured the design against the protests even of the honoree’s kin; and the spendthrift habits that have made the project as a whole a marquee example of government wastefulness.
Responding to the morass that his late father’s proposed memorial has become, John Eisenhower has suggested that “taxpayers and donors alike will be better served with an Eisenhower statue that is a green space with a simple statue.”
Indeed. And so would Ike.