Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 6, 2016

National Capital Planning Commission Rejects Frank Gehry’s Design for Eisenhower Memorial

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., says architect Frank Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial has an "immodesty " that is "unbefitting" of the plainspoken 34th president. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Issa says Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial has an immodesty that is unbefitting of the plainspoken 34th president. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Members of Congress past and present ventured into the National Capital Planning Commission’s headquarters last week to weigh in on the long-delayed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial project.

Former Rep. Leonard Boswell came from Iowa to encourage planners to move forward. The 80-year-old Democrat and Army veteran said he would like to see the memorial done before he dies, and called the project a “great tribute to veterans.”

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., also ventured downtown for the NCPC’s first formal action on architect Frank Gehry’s design. Schock believes the park, which is to be framed by large metal tapestries at the intersection of Maryland and Independence avenues Southwest, is not consistent with other D.C. memorials. He said it resembles “a 4-acre theme park without a coherent theme,” and urged the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to restart the design process.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., an ex officio member of NCPC, also criticized the plan meant to pay tribute to Ike’s humble Kansas roots and achievements as a World War II hero. Issa believes the current plan doesn’t “make enough” of some of his domestic accomplishments as the 34th president, such as desegregating schools.

“If I had my way, the tapestry submitted would not be the tapestry that we build,” said Issa, who suggested the design is immodest and unbefitting of Eisenhower’s humility and plainspokenness.

Following the comments, the NCPC rejected the design and requested Gehry revise the scale and configuration of the tapestries. By a 7-3 vote, the commission formally disapproved preliminary site and building plans. Concerns were raised that 80-foot-tall limestone clad columns supporting the tapestries would diminish views of the Capitol along Maryland Avenue Southwest and would not complement surrounding buildings, streets and trees.

“It is a rare opportunity to add a new presidential memorial to our nation’s capital,” NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant Jr. said. “There is widespread unanimity on the need for, and value of, a memorial honoring the remarkable accomplishments of President Eisenhower in a fitting and lasting manner. In doing so, we also have an opportunity to create a new urban public space that contributes to the capital’s historic and symbolic form and the city’s vitality.”

Representatives from the National Park Service and the General Services Administration voiced support for Gehry’s design, but were outnumbered in the final vote.

At Issa’s request, the NCPC also directed the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to return every two months, beginning in June, to provide updates on design modifications.

“As somebody who has grown to greatly admire President Eisenhower, I know he was a man who believed you had to come as you are, bring what you have and get the job done,” Issa said in a statement following the vote. “I don’t view today’s vote as a rejection of the proposed design, but rather an opportunity to have the dialogue necessary to resolve these remaining issues once and for all.”

Issa suggested frequent updates might make it easier to convince Congress to restore funding. For fiscal 2014, Interior appropriators zeroed out construction funding, halved the memorial commission’s operating budget and urged the parties involved to work “as partners” on the project now 15 years in the making. The congressman said he could not object to his colleagues defunding the project when it seemed like there was no progress.

Schock thinks asking the commission to return every two months is a positive step.

“I think anybody funding this project in the private sector would require updates at least every two months, if not every month or once a week,” he told CQ Roll Call.

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission issued a statement calling the NCPC’s decision “surprising” and pointing out that another federal body charged with overseeing the project, the Commission on Fine Arts, had given its preliminary approval to the design.

“For well over a year, we have endeavored to work closely with NCPC staff and leadership in an effort to ensure that today’s review of the design would fully address any and all of NCPC’s stated concerns,” commission spokeswoman Chris Cimko said in a statement. “In the coming days, the EMC will work with NCPC to determine the best possible path forward to create a memorial to President and General Eisenhower.”

  • Justin Shubow

    A few things to add to the short blog post: At the meeting, Rep. Issa objected to the landscape imagery on the tapestries, and instead
    asked for images of D-Day, etc. Such a change will
    never happen: Gehry has already rejected them, plus they would vastly
    reduce the transparency of the tapestries. Also, Issa submitted a written statement to NCPC in which he said, “I believe this design contains many admirable elements, but it also contains elements that have received justified opprobrium. Its immodesty is unbefitting of the humility and plain-spokeness that characterized our 34th President.” After Issa had left the meeting, Commissioner Provancha made a point of quoting the letter.

    Commissioners Hart and Miller made it clear they will not support *any* design with the 80-foot-by-10-foot columns. Miller called them “big bad bollards” and said they were “ugly” and fit for a highway overpass. Commissioner White also said the columns are “overwhelming from a human scale” and that the design is “like being in a movie theater being too close to the screen.”

    It’s also worth noting that NCPC released a Sept. 2012 letter from Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) (ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Public Lands), Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) that said, “It is our understanding that the NCPC proposed the closure of Maryland Avenue to vehicle traffic and the confinement of the vista from 160 feet to 50 feet to accommodate space for . . . the Eisenhower Memorial . . . . NCPC’s decision was a radical departure from the L’Enfant Plan and appears to undercut the District of Columbia’s planned redevelopment of the Maryland Avenue corridor recently approved by the DC Council. . . . We believe these past interpretation that have demoted the value of the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans . . . . They also contradict the Commemorative Works Act . . . . The Act . . . states that its primary purpose is to ‘preserve the integrity of the comprehensive design of the L’Enfant and McMillan plans for the Nation’s Capital.'” By implication, the authors oppose Gehry’s design as reviewed by NCPC.

    NCPC also released a March 2012 letter from Mayor Gray in which he essentially sides with the Eisenhower family. It also released a letter from Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and former Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) opposing the design.

    Also, a speaker at the meeting delivered a statement on behalf of J. William Middendorf, who is a World War II veteran; former Secretary of the Navy; and a former Ambassador to the Netherlands, the European Communities, and the Organization of American States. Middendorf expressed his unreserved support for the Eisenhower family’s opposition to the design.

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