The beleaguered Eisenhower Memorial Commission holds its next public gathering later this month, and before its members duck-walk into the hearing room, huddled in a hoplite phalanx against a shower of eggs and rotten vegetables unloosed by an audience of neo-classicist fuddy-duddies, they should consider an observation from the architecture critic Alexandra Lange. It’s the pithiest criticism yet of the memorial design got up by the celebrity architect Frank O. Gehry, which everyone but Gehry and the commissioners seems to dislike. Lange’s comment came in the form of a tweet, but don’t hold that against it or her.
“New Eisenhower memorial design,” tweeteth she, “reveals [Gehry] doesn’t know the difference between a memorial and a diorama.”
Before her reputation is irretrievably sunk by praise from these quarters, we rush to say that Lange is as far from a fuddy-duddy as an architecture critic can be. But she does understand that different public purposes require different structures to enable and embody them, and that the present Eisenhower design serves one public purpose above all, and a very modern one at that: to testify to the undoubted cleverness of the celebrity architect and to the much more dubious sophistication of the people who hired him. The memory of Dwight Eisenhower trails a distant second.
Some details of the design have changed since a chorus of Bronx cheers greeted its unveiling last year, but the rudiments apparently remain the same. A four-acre square at Maryland Avenue, SW, at the foot of Capitol Hill, will be blocked off. A half-dozen or so plain brick pillars will rise from the perimeter of the square. Between them will be hung towering metal-mesh “tapestries” depicting the lonesome Kansas prairie from which Eisenhower emerged and to which (we shouldn’t forget) he returned as seldom as possible. “Interactive” touchscreens will pump visitors with information about Ike. Large stone boxes placed at odd angles will serve as a stage for clusters of statues representing Eisenhower as president and as general of the armies at D-Day. To judge by the mockups at the commission website (eisenhowermemorial.gov), the overall effect is weirdly claustrophobic for an outdoor space. Lange chose the right word: It’s a diorama, alternately life-sized and supersized, at once grandiose and trivial.
Gehry and the commissioners show every sign of being shellshocked by the public outcry, including opposition from Eisenhower’s surviving son and grandchildren. For 20 years now Gehry has been the most flattered architect in the world, and the untutored politicians who sit on the commission can be forgiven for mistaking prestige and hype for skill and sensitivity. Gehry’s fame, of course, is what the commissioners were buying when they hired him in the first place, and they got much more than they paid for. Opposition from traditionalist buzzkills at The Weekly Standard and the National Civic Art Society could be expected and shrugged off. But now the criticism comes from the budgeteers on Capitol Hill, where it could prove fatal.
The commission is asking for $49 million to break ground and begin construction through the next fiscal year, on top of the $62 million it has already spent since its inception in 1999. The whole project is expected to cost $142 million, a figure that, taken yard by yard and adjusted for inflation, makes it one of the most expensive memorials the capital has ever seen. Rob Bishop, a Republican congressman from Utah who heads a public lands subcommittee in the House, has introduced a bill to eliminate the additional funding and start over with a new nationwide competition for a more appropriate design: more modest and less expensive and thus more fitting for its subject. In Congress the response to Bishop’s bill has been surprisingly favorable—and bipartisan. “I don’t think that the design is an appropriate use of that property, nor an appropriate memorial to President Eisenhower,” Rep. James Moran, a Democrat who represents Alexandria, Virginia, told the New York Times.
In approving Bishop’s bill, Congress would be honoring the request made late last year by John S. D. Eisenhower on behalf of his family. An accomplished historian and a fine writer, Eisenhower proved that the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree. He asked that the present design for a memorial to his father be withdrawn in favor of a fresh start. “I am the first to admit that this memorial should be designed for the benefit of the people, not our family,” he wrote. Still, “the scope and scale of it is too extravagant. . . . [American taxpayers] have priorities more urgent than building such an expensive memorial right now.” In place of Gehry’s absurdities, he recommended that Eisenhower square on Maryland Avenue be constructed “as a green open space with a simple statue in the middle.”
It may be that the very idea of an Eisenhower memorial was misbegotten. It is an artifact of the 1990s, when a kind of memorial mania seized the caretakers of the capital’s monumental core. Every special pleader wanted in on the act. “Memorial envy” junked up the National Mall with overblown, and now irreversible, mistakes like the cartoonish FDR memorial and the vast, aimless World War II memorial, and the quasi-Stalinist tribute to Martin Luther King. A game of oneupsmanship was put in play. If FDR gets seven acres on the mall, why can’t Ike get four acres a few yards off the mall? And if the good Republican Ike gets his expensive, high-concept tribute, then shouldn’t we consider balancing it with a good Democrat, JFK? And if JFK gets a grand monument, then surely Reagan . . .
It’s time to call a truce. Reconceiving the Ike tribute would be a welcome de-escalation in memorial mania. By all means let us honor Ike. As John Eisenhower suggests, we can even keep the four-acre square on Maryland Avenue if his admirers will accept nothing less—indeed, the resulting traffic gridlock could be seen as a reminder of the Interstate Highway System that President Eisenhower did so much to advance. Ring the new square with shade trees and raise in the middle an expressive statue on a handsome plinth. Place a placard here and there with enough information to satisfy the pedagogues.
Models for such a scheme exist throughout Washington, after all, to the honor of many gallant warriors and to the capital’s everlasting benefit. It was good enough for the martyred James B. McPherson, hero of the Battle of Atlanta, in his square at 15th and Vermont, NW, and for the Rock of Chickamauga, General George Henry Thomas, in his 14th Street roundabout. General Sheridan astride his steed in his circle on Massachusetts Avenue tells us far more about the essence of “Little Phil” than the mysterious columns and boxes of Gehry’s diorama could ever tell us about Ike. And at far less cost, too—in money, in time, and in public fuss.