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Fred A. Bernstein: Shelve plans for Eisenhower memorial

  • Washington Post
  • Published Wednesday, May 1, 2013, at 12 a.m.

In 1999, Congress authorized the construction of a memorial to the 34th president, Dwight Eisenhower, and, in 2009, Frank Gehry won a competition to design it. His plan, approved in 2010, calls for turning a four-acre site at the base of Capitol Hill into a kind of memorial campus, partly enclosed by 80-foot-high woven-metal tapestries depicting scenes from Eisenhower’s life. Plans were moving forward for the memorial – expected to cost at least $140 million – when controversy struck.

Eisenhower’s grandchildren denounced the design as insufficiently respectful (at one point comparing the tapestries to the Iron Curtain and the supporting columns to missile silos). Now backers of “traditional” architecture, including the Chicago philanthropist Richard Driehaus, are working up new designs that will include classical elements. One member of Congress has introduced legislation to defund the memorial, at least until a more acceptable design can be developed. The American Institute of Architects denounced that move as “nothing more than an effort to intimidate.” How will it end? The only certain thing is that the process will drag on for years while the cost of the memorial increases.

As an architecture critic, I have wavered: While I applaud Gehry’s design, I question the wisdom of building a memorial that offends the Eisenhower family.

But there is a perfect solution to the problem: Don’t build an Eisenhower memorial at all.

There have been 44 presidents. No one is suggesting there be 44 – or more – presidential memorials on the Mall. Which presidents deserve the honor? Only those whom historians deem above average?

In historical rankings of presidents, Eisenhower generally makes the top 10. But Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman also make that cut (sometimes besting Eisenhower). And nobody, so far as I know, is suggesting Mall memorials to those three presidents.

The reasons for favoring Eisenhower have to do with his role as a soldier-statesman; he was, after all, an architect of the U.S. victory in World War II and rightly remembered as a leader of the “greatest generation.”

But there is already a huge World War II memorial in a prominent position on the Mall. Eisenhower’s name, along with a quotation – his charge to troops on D-Day – is inscribed into one of its walls. It’s doubtful anyone visits the site without thinking of Ike.

Meanwhile, the federal government funds the library at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in his hometown of Abilene, Kan. That complex contains two large, classically inspired buildings, the renovated Eisenhower Boyhood Home and a handsome statue of the president. Still not satisfied? The government also maintains the Eisenhower National Historic Site, his weekend retreat in Gettysburg, Pa. (The 690-acre site incorporates four farms, three of which were used by Eisenhower for his show herd of black Angus cattle.)

These monuments already exist, and in places that don’t have the concentration of attractions that Washington has. According to a National Park Service spokesman, the Gettysburg site received 53,000 visitors in 2012, or about 150 a day – numbers that should be increased at least tenfold before we think of building another memorial to Ike.

Of course more people would visit an Ike memorial in Washington than in Abilene or Gettysburg. But there’s a reason presidential libraries and museums are built outside Washington. Cities all over the country deserve attention and tourist dollars, as presidents choosing sites for their libraries have recognized.

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission should drop its plans for a memorial in Washington – ending a controversy that is reaching a fever pitch – and focus its attention on the existing Eisenhower sites. Abilene, Gettysburg and, yes, Washington will all come out ahead.

Fred A. Bernstein contributes to Architectural Record and other magazines.

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