Construction of the Washington, D.C. memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower, a process more than 10 years in the making, is at a major crossroads. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s (EMC) congressional authorization has expired, and Rep. Sam Bishop (R-UT), has introduced a bill to reauthorize it. But Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, is seeking major changes. The bill would withhold $100 million in funding and toss out Frank Gehry’s design for the memorial, starting over the whole process of design selection.
On Tuesday morning, the subcommittee held a hearing to discuss where the memorial should go from here. All but one of the five witnesses called to testify were critics of the current approach. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), a member of the National Capital Planning Commission, which has to approve the design, argued against moving forward with Gehry’s scheme. Referring to criticism it has received from the Eisenhower family, Issa said, “This memorial cannot be built if it is inconsistent with the views of the people who knew [President Eisenhower] best.”
Susan Eisenhower, the President’s granddaughter, reiterated her family’s complaints, especially regarding the metal tapestries that would form the memorial’s backdrop. Eisenhower views them as excessively expensive to construct and ecologically unsustainable. “Significant stakeholders believe the Gehry design is regretfully unworkable,” said Eisenhower. “It’s time to go back to drawing board with an open competition for new design.” She also read a letter from her father, John S. D. Eisenhower, arguing that, “taxpayers will be better served by green open space with a simple memorial.”
The Republican members of the committee all expressed distaste for Gehry’s design. The most strident critic by far was Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), who fulminated, “The result of this commission’s work is just appalling. How did we come up with this monstrosity?” Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) expressed more optimism about the current approach, pressing critics to think about a compromise. “I sort of like the design we have now,” said Holt. “I wonder if there aren’t some more changes possible that would make it more suitable to everyone?”
Brig. Gen. Carl Reddel, (Ret. USAF), executive director of the EMC, told the committee that Gehry has adjusted the design—for example by substituting statues for bas-relief—in response to criticisms, and that more changes could come. Reddel and Holt also cautioned that every major memorial in Washington was controversial at first, from the Washington Monument to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and excessive political meddling could be counter-productive. Said Holt at the hearing’s end, “The only thing worse than design by committee is design by congressional committee.”
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) would agree. When Bishop’s bill was introduced last week, they released a critical statement. “Representative Bishop’s legislation allows Congress to exercise governmental authority in a wholly arbitrary manner that negates the stated selection process,” said AIA CEO Robert Ivy. After Tuesday’s hearing Ivy issued another statement, noting, “If Congress exerts the right to change the rules and reject designs in the middle of the game, these small [architectural] firms will not take part in the federal procurement process.”
Reauthorization of the memorial will ultimately require passage by the House, the Democratically-controlled Senate, and a presidential signature. Bishop’s bill could change a lot along the way. The EMC remains optimistic that Gehry’s design will be salvaged. Says EMC spokeswoman Chris Cimko, invoking another 20th century American icon, “I think we have a long way to go before we sleep, as Robert Frost would say.”