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Rescuing the Eisenhower Memorial

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Eisenhower Source LOCIn the continuing saga over the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, new Congressional legislation would halt any additional federal funding for Frank Gehry’s design and send the memorial back to its planning phase. (Read more background on the memorial controversy here.)  Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, introduced the bill, which Susan Eisenhower—Ike’s granddaughter—supports. “We are very respectful that this is a memorial for the American people,” she told the congressional committee last week. “I think we might be in a different position if the public hadn’t been so very strongly against this design.”

Writing in the New Yorker, Jeffrey Frank, author of Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, notes that the proposed design has “managed to achieve something rare in Washington: in true bipartisan spirit, almost everyone hates it.”  He continues:

On the anniversary of President Eisenhower’s first Inauguration, he went to Fort McNair, which was nearby, to have lunch with some Army pals. His Cabinet, meanwhile, marked the day by presenting him with a gift—a crystal bowl created by Steuben Glass. The bowl (now known as the Eisenhower Cup) was twelve and a half inches high, and, when you looked closely, you could see eight engravings meant to represent important periods of Eisenhower’s life. One showed an Army cadet (Ike entered West Point in June, 1911, when he was twenty), and another was a military man with ships and aircraft, a reminder of his central role in the invasion of Normandy, in June, 1945. You saw him being sworn in as the thirty-fourth President by Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, and there were symbols to show his postwar years as Army Chief of Staff and his assignment, in 1951, to Supreme Allied Headquarters, in France. There was, in addition, an evocation of his childhood in Abilene, Kansas: a boy alongside wheat stalks and a sunflower, the state flower.

That small, elegant bowl—which managed in the space of a square foot to sum up much of Ike’s life and times—could not be less like the proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, which was designed by the architect Frank Gehry and approved by the fourteen-year-old Eisenhower Memorial Commission. This project would take up much of a four-acre plot across the street from the National Air and Space Museum, which itself sits on the increasingly cluttered National Mall, and would be dominated by four eighty-foot metal “curtains” showing scenes from Eisenhower’s life. In an early iteration, the Kansas “barefoot boy” was to be the central image, a concept about which Susan Eisenhower, an Eisenhower granddaughter, said, “The man we celebrate is not a dreamy boy, but a real man who faced unthinkable choices, took personal responsibility and did his duty—with modesty and humanity.”

The revised design has more man than boy, but the memorial, which so far has cost more than sixty-two million dollars—a sum that would have appalled the fiscally austere Eisenhower—has still produced little more than acrimony. . . . In October, Eisenhower’s only living son, John S. D. Eisenhower, urged a full retreat. Rather than the planned hundred-and-forty-two-million-dollar memorial, he suggested a “green open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations from his most important sayings,” presumably including his celebrated 1961 warning about the “military-industrial complex.” Susan, John’s daughter, made the same argument before Congress last week. . . .

[Eisenhower’s qualities are] not easy qualities to capture in a memorial, but as the design for this one goes back for the complete reboot that it desperately needs, one possible starting place might be the little Steuben bowl that a committee of Cabinet officers—people like John Foster Dulles and George Humphrey!—commissioned sixty years ago. President Eisenhower was grateful, but reportedly asked the gift-givers if the bowl had a cap-and-gown scene to symbolize his years as the president of Columbia University. It did not. Perhaps the new, improved, and vastly scaled-down Eisenhower Memorial might include that, too.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.