Eisenhower memorial gets preliminary OK

Design, criticized for being too grandiose, still faces hurdles



WASHINGTON — The embattled memorial to honor the nation’s 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, got a boost Thursday from an approving agency after famed architect Frank Gehry modified the design.

The National Capital Planning Commission voted 10-1 in favor of the downsized design in the first of a two-stage approval process.

While the vote represents a victory for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, the design still faces strong opposition from Congress and the Eisenhower family, which objected to it as too grandiose.

The planning commission had voted against preliminary approval in April, forcing Gehry to make substantial changes in his vision. His modified design removes two controversial metal tapestries that the planning commission said impeded sight lines to the U.S. Capitol and leaves two standalone pillars instead.

There is still one large tapestry along one side of the memorial site, which is across the street from the National Air and Space Museum. In the middle of the four-acre site are more traditional memorial elements, sculptures and bas-relief groups. One shows Eisenhower as supreme Allied commander in World War II, and another as president, with a statue in the middle of a seated young Eisenhower as a West Point cadet.

The architect, who is famous for his unique designs including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Eisenhower commission, which was created by Congress to develop and create a memorial, celebrated Thursday’s vote.

“Like anyone who might be chosen for such a commission, I have felt humbled to be working on the memorial for Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the towering figures of the 20th century, whom I deeply admire as a president, a general and a man,” Gehry said in a statement released by the Eisenhower commission. “I’m grateful to the National Capital Planning Commission for its decision, and for its cooperative engagement in resolving the issues.”

Gehry has been buffeted by the controversy but has other projects underway. He is about to be celebrated Oct. 27 in Paris at the opening of a new museum he designed, the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, which Vanity Fair magazine declared to be “Gehry’s coup.”

The chairman of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, Rocco Siciliano, who served in the Eisenhower administration and has led the commission since its inception in 2001, said in a statement, “This is an important milestone for our commission and for those who have been engaged in this project over the last decade. We all look forward to the next steps that will keep the memorial moving forward.”

Critics were out in force at the planning commission meeting and continue to press the fight.

“Those who acknowledge these severe problems, yet who want, nonetheless, to build the memorial, are in effect saying that this design is ‘too big to fail,'” said Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group. “Well, this design is so big, so gargantuan that it has failed. It is bankrupt financially, and it is bankrupt symbolically. The memorial is a viaduct to nowhere.”

Congress has cut almost all the funding for the memorial because so many key members disliked the original design. Supporters hope to restart the process now that the modified design has been given the green light.