No One Likes Ike’s Memorial

House report could doom Frank Gehry design

General Dwight D. Eisenhower
General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1944 / AP
July 29, 2014

After more than a decade of planning and $44 million spent, a proposed memorial for President Dwight D. Eisenhower may never be built. A House Committee on Natural Resources report published last week revealed the extent of the money wasted on the already controversial project.

Construction for the Eisenhower memorial has not begun and the proposed design has not been approved, but the Eisenhower Commission, which was established as a staff of 12 in 1999, has already spent tens of millions of dollars on the project.

Much of that money has gone to Frank Gehry, who was chosen by the commission to design the memorial. According to the congressional report, Gehry’s firm has already received $16 million for his project despite the fact that his design has not received the approval it needs.

"So far my firm has dedicated seven years of staff time to this effort, responding to multiple agencies and offices in Washington, consulting with concerned private individuals, and undertaking extensive tests and assessments that went far beyond the original scope of services we had been given, and I personally have done all my design work pro bono," Gehry said in a statement.

The Eisenhower Commission has also spent $1.4 million on fundraising efforts that have yielded a total of $500,000. Its initial fundraising goal was $35 million.

Additionally, the commission has paid a total of $9.2 million to three separate project management teams.

"The commission’s decision to hire and subsequently rely on three separate project management teams, costing more than $9.2 million in fees alone, and having committed to a design that apparently cannot be approved under the existing guidelines raises grave concerns about the ability of the commission staff to complete this project," the House committee wrote.

In an effort to kill the Gehry design, Rep. Rob Bishop (R., Utah) filed legislation late last Friday that calls for the replacement of all 12 members on the Eisenhower Commission.

The House report could mean the end for the Gehry design, according to Bruce Cole, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who was appointed by President Barack Obama as a member of the Eisenhower Commission.

"This report detailing shocking staff mismanagement, huge cost overruns, and a waste of millions, drives a stake through the heart of the Gehry plan," Cole said. "After this, how can anyone even think of going forward with his design?"

"Whatever happens with our design, we are concerned about only one thing: that a memorial is ultimately built and that it will honor what Eisenhower did and truly reflect who he was," Gehry said.


Gehry's design vision / House Committee on Natural Resources report
Gehry's design vision / House Committee on Natural Resources report

If Frank Gehry’s design is approved, the proposed Eisenhower memorial would dwarf the Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln memorials.

Gehry’s recent works include the Walt Disney Music Center in California and the Guggenheim Museum in Spain. He designed the Facebook headquarters in California. He even designed a hat for Lady Gaga in 2009.

But the "starchitect," as he’s called, has found few allies in Washington, D.C.

Gehry wants his designs to reflect the fluid world he inhabits. "Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising," he has said.

However, some critics say Gehry was not the appropriate choice to design a memorial to a U.S. president, especially Eisenhower, who was known for his modesty and humility.

The proposed Eisenhower memorial will be built on four acres off Maryland Avenue in Washington, D.C., near the National Mall behind the Air and Space Museum.

Gehry’s design features 80-foot-high columns holding steel tapestries, the largest of which would be longer than the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. The tapestries will feature scenes of Kansas, where Eisenhower grew up.

Several critics have taken issue with these scenes, which feature wintry trees that call to mind death and cold.

The overbearing tapestries are not the focal point of the design. Gehry has called his design an "urban room." The tapestries make three walls that enclose a boy Eisenhower, a General Eisenhower, and a President Eisenhower.

The boy Eisenhower is unrecognizable. Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, said at a panel discussion earlier this month that the statue was merely a "sentimental piece of kitsch."

The design’s flaws are not simply visual: There are also physical problems as well.

In a test piece of the steel tapestry, trash and debris—hardly rare on the National Mall—got stuck and could not be removed.

The cost of upkeep for the memorial would be $740,000 annually, according to an estimate by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.


Even the design commission had misgivings about Gehry’s idea.

The National Civic Art Society has long held suspicions that the design competition Gehry won was rigged. The congressional report released Friday shows the suspicions were not unfounded.

The commission decided to use the Design Excellence Program for the competition rather than a more open design competition such as the one used for the Vietnam Memorial.

"The factors used to select the designer were weighted in a way that benefitted a well-known designer such as Gehry," according to the report. Designers’ portfolios were weighted 55 percent, meaning an established designer such as Gehry had a huge advantage.

The design competition also "substantially deviated" from the Design Excellence Program, which has in the past been used for memorial contests.

Gehry’s submission did not adhere to the requirements put in place by the National Capitol Planning Commission, and it is not clear if these requirements were explained to the architects before the competition began.

Several jury members expressed doubts about the Gehry design.

One jury member described it as "chaotic when viewed up close." Another said it reminded him of a "ruin in advance."

According to the design jury’s summary, none of the design submissions "expressed the whole essence of Eisenhower." They went on to say that "the schemes presented were mediocre for such an important memorial."

However, the jury chose Gehry’s design rather than requesting another round of submissions.


The Gehry design has hit a number of speed bumps in the past few years.

David Eisenhower, President Eisenhower’s grandson, resigned from the commission in 2011. Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the former president, is a vocal opponent.

The National Capital Planning Commission rejected Gehry’s design in April 2014.

Congress zeroed out the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s construction funds earlier this year, approving just $1 million of the $50 million the Eisenhower Commission requested.

The design "is not pleasing to the Eisenhower family or to the general if he were alive today," said Rep. Steve Stockman (R., Texas), who spoke briefly at a discussion of the Eisenhower memorial controversy earlier this month.

Despite all these setbacks, the project has lived on. The commission continues to work under the impression that the memorial will be built.

Following publication of the House report, executive director of the Eisenhower Commission Carl Reddel emailed all 12 commission members saying the report got the facts wrong.

"We believe it incorporates mischaracterizations and incorrect information," Reddel said in his email. "Given its length and conclusions involving multiple entities, we will need some time to review it before responding more completely."

Responding to a request for comment about the House report, Eisenhower Commission spokesperson Chris Kelley Cimko said the commission is "closely reviewing the staff report for accuracy and context."

Shubow likened the Gehry design to a zombie that will not die. The project could live on if Congress gives the commission another $1 million in operating costs in its 2015 fiscal budget.


"The commission is falsely claiming that opponents to the Gehry design want no memorial at all," Shubow said. "Opponents want a memorial built."

If a design is chosen that is better-liked than the Gehry design—especially if it garners approval from the Eisenhower family—additional funding is more likely to be available.

"Let's use the remaining $20 million in already appropriated money to construct a fitting memorial to Ike instead of trying to resuscitate Gehry's unbuildable project," Cole said.