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

A row over the newest presidential monument in Washington, D.C. has pitted Ike's family against one of this century's most revered architects.

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Courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP

View toward general Eisenhower Memorial element. Sculpture inspired from photograph of General Eisenhower speaking with the 101st Airborne troops prior to the invasion of D-Day, June 1945.

It’s a question we all ask ourselves: What aspect of our life would we most like to be remembered by? It’s also the dilemma at the heart of an ongoing battle over a planned memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, D.C., that has involved everyone from the 34thPresident’s family to one of this century’s most iconic architects.

In 2009, Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry was chosen to create an Eisenhower memorial for the nation’s capital. He seemed an odd choice for a monument to one of our more staid Presidents; Gehry is best known for designing voluptuous, metal-sheathed buildings like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the soaring 76-story skyscraper in lower Manhattan known as New York by Gehry.

And indeed, when Gehry unveiled his first rendering of the $112 million structure, which is planned to reside near the National Air and Space Museum, just off the National Mall, he received heavy criticism — but not for any of the concepts relating to his design.  Instead, the Eisenhower estate slammed him for portraying the five-star general as an out-of-touch yokel; the design, it felt, focused too heavily on Eisenhower’s youth in Kansas while paying mere lip service to his military accomplishments as supreme Allied commander in World War II and his subsequent term as President.

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The loudest critic of all was Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, who said the memorial made Eisenhower seem a “dreamy boy” — a comment that prompted a summit meeting with Gehry in December 2011 and helped pave the way for a revised design for what could be the first new presidential monument in the nation’s capital since the 1997 opening of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s memorial.

While the original design had garnered support from a variety of D.C.-based organizations, such as the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, critics said the design — which features 11-ft.-diameter, 80-ft.-tall columns supporting translucent steel tapestries — was out of scale with the area and with the neoclassical feel of other Washington monuments. They also complained that the memorial’s imagery, which focused largely on Eisenhower’s early life in rural Kansas (evoked by the grain-silo-like columns), wasn’t presidential enough.

After his first design met with resistance in September 2011, Gehry admitted he didn’t have a Plan B. So upon meeting with the Eisenhower family in December, he went back to the drawing board, unveiling a second plan in May: a design that offers more renderings of Eisenhower as a powerful leader and fewer of him as an inspired (or in Gehry’s original view, inspiring) youth from rural Abilene, Kans.

While the tapestries of Kansas — and a sculpture of Ike as a boy that previously formed the focus of the memorial — didn’t fade away, the new design puts them in a far grander context. Set against a grove of trees in Eisenhower Square, the memorial now includes full limestone sculptures, rather than the earlier bas-reliefs, of Eisenhower as a military and presidential leader.

In a letter to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, Gehry said the “refined” design “helps tell the story of Eisenhower with more dignity and more power” within the framework already presented.

The new sculptures offer one image of General Eisenhower with soldiers of the 101stAirborne Division before they parachuted into Normandy, France, and another based on a famous Yousuf Karsh portrait of Ike as an elder statesman poring over a globe. Putting these images into a “heroic scale” gives them more power and accessibility, Gehry wrote.

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The shift also cleared up space on the stone blocks, allowing the architect to inscribe text chronicling Eisenhower’s achievements and pen excerpts from speeches such as his famous Guildhall and farewell addresses.

Gehry fought, however, to keep the life-size sculpture of Eisenhower as a boy in the center of the memorial, especially considering the location’s proximity to the Department of Education and the Air and Space Museum. “Eisenhower as a young man looking out on his future accomplishments is a powerful image,” he wrote. “It will be an inspiration to these kids.”

In defense of the rural landscape in the tapestries, Gehry said that to omit the peacefulness and gravitas of Ike’s upbringing would eliminate an important part of his story, both for people passing through the park and for those viewing it from the outside.

The Eisenhower family hasn’t yet responded to the new design, but the commission is all for it. “We are very happy,” says spokesman Chris Simko of the board’s reaction. “To a person, they all applauded the changes and feel it made the memorial even stronger.”

In July, the National Capital Planning Commission is to give its preliminary design approval, the first step in attaining multiple agency approvals. With luck — and assuming the Eisenhower family and the man designing his monument agree — the memorial is scheduled to be completed by Memorial Day 2015.

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