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Revising Eisenhower–and his Memorial

Friday, May 11th, 2012

The Washington Examiner reports that revisions to the proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial will be revealed on Tuesday. As National Journal noted in April, “since late last year–when architect Frank Gehry began finalizing his design for a national memorial to the late president opposite the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall–pundits, critics, and descendants of Ike have been in high dudgeon over the proposal’s focal point: a life-size sculpture of a teenage Eisenhower gazing dreamily at the horizon.”

The Eisenhower family has been critical of this part of the design as it makes Eisenhower’s boyhood–and not the greatness for which we remember him–the central theme of the memorial. But their criticisms extend beyond the statue to the entire design itself, likening Gehry’s “‘tapestries,’ or stainless-steel scrims suspended on 80-foot-high columns, to the ‘Iron Curtain.'”

The family is not optimistic about Gehry’s refinements to the design, doubting that the changes are substantial enough to redeem the proposed memorial. In his testimony before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands in March, Bruce Cole, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a panelist at next Friday’s “Monumental Fights” event at AEI (register here), agreed:

[…] It is of these young people I think when contemplating Mr. Gehry’s plans for the proposed memorial to Dwight Eisenhower. For me, Ike is still a living memory: his role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces which freed Europe from great evil, and his two terms as the President of the United States are events that I lived through.

But what about our rising generations who lack this first-hand historical memory?  What will they know, if anything, about this great American?  To teach them not only about Ike and his deeds, but to give them a sense of his greatness and the debt we owe him, is the task of any monument worthy of bearing his name. This mission is admirably summarized in the 1999 law passed by Congress ordering that “an appropriate memorial to Dwight [D.] Eisenhower should be created to perpetuate his memory and his contributions to the United States.” Such a monument should, therefore, memorialize and educate.  In the execution of these tasks, the Gehry proposal not only fails, but fails utterly.


The Gehry plan is a lot of disparate things of wildly different shapes, proportions, materials and sizes. There are enormous pillars misnamed columns (columns support something and have a capital at the top, these don’t), trees, aluminum mesh“tapestries” (tapestries are despite Gehry’s claim, not usually an integral part of the history of monuments and these are more similar to chain-link fences), inscriptions, and two large photomurals, all strewn about in a four-acre space.  The result is that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Compounding the problem is the enormity of the planned space.  Few, if any, of the most successful monuments in the history of art are this grandiose, especially in our democratic republic where our presidents, some of whom do not even have memorials, are seen as citizens not super humans: two good examples are the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. But the present plan for the four-acre site of the Eisenhower Memorial, filled with such disparate elements, will create diffusion and confusion of message and, if realized, will resemble a huge amusement park rather than a memorial.

Moreover, like an amusement park, there is no overall narrative, no sequential story, and no central focus to guide visitors, especially the many who will arrive with a limited or no knowledge of President Eisenhower. The proposed profusion of digital interactive displays will be costly, difficult to maintain, and fragile. This so-called “e-Memorial” is no substitute for a compelling, coherent narrative which provides knowledge, content, and inspiration.

My remedy for the Eisenhower Memorial would be to go back to the drawing board, institute an open process seeking designs (not simply qualifications), solicit the input of the public, and seek a plan with a coherent and meaningful message that will be comprehensible to visitors for centuries to come. Moreover, I believe that in these hard economic times there is simply no justification for building something that costs taxpayers upward of 100 million dollars. Instead, I would pursue a much more modest, less ostentatious, and more sustainable solution.  My only recommendation for the architectural style is that it be worthy of the great man it honors.