Escalating controversy over cost and design issues has stalled the proposed memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower in Washington, D.C. Although there is near-unanimous support for including the commander of D-Day alongside the most-honored American presidents, there is little agreement over the avant-garde design proposed more than three years ago by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission and its designer, famed architect Frank Gehry.
Their plans have drawn a degree of opposition that is unusual even for a city where it seems no memorial goes uncontested. Last week the commission withdrew its application from public review when a federal agency indicated it would not approve Gehry’s design. Congress has already suspended its construction funding, and the Eisenhower family has called repeatedly for a redesign.
A bill introduced last spring by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, echoes their proposal. It would also use a public selection process that is standard for national memorials but which for some reason this memorial commission declined to use. Bishop’s proposal deserves further consideration in light of the recent events that threaten an uncertain future for Eisenhower’s memorial.
The flawed and unusual selection process used by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission is the ultimate source of the current controversy. Public competitions open to everyone are the standard procedure for designing national memorials. Anonymous entries are judged solely on the merit of their ideas, which is how 20-year-old Maya Lin was selected to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1980. Public competitions have been used for every memorial on the National Mall designed since then.
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission, however, eschewed a standard public process for a bureaucratic procedure that considered only registered architects. In fact it sought a designer rather than a design, on the assumption that a highly credentialed architect would produce the most compelling design. It is not surprising that in these circumstances the commission selected Frank Gehry, probably the most-famous American architect, before he even submitted a final design. This backward selection process has left us without alternatives to whatever Mr. Gehry came up with and has left his design vulnerable to charges that he, not President Eisenhower, is its real subject.
Spiraling cost is another consequence of selecting a design without providing alternatives. The current design is expected to cost $142 million to build, far in excess of the $55 million to $75 million originally budgeted, in keeping with the cost of prior presidential memorials. The memorial commission expects the public to pay 80 percent of the current design’s yet-to-be-determined final cost. The private fundraising that is supposed to pay the remaining 20 percent will be hard to secure in the current climate of controversy.
Nor has the Eisenhower Memorial Commission kept a clear account of the project’s rising cost. Or rather that is the impression it’s created by so far refusing — despite repeated requests from Bishop and others in Congress — to account for the approximately $40 million it has spent over the last 13 years without even starting construction on the memorial.
Nevertheless the commission has requested an additional $51 million for 2014. This kind of casual attitude to the public purse hardly serves the legacy of President Eisenhower, whose more-thorough accounting balanced the federal budget three times.
This summer the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously passed Rep. Bishop’s bill, and it awaits action by the full House. It is most likely to receive the full attention it deserves if members of Congress, including Utah’s delegation, refuse further funding for the current design. As the Bishop bill recognizes, we can only fix the flawed process that is responsible for the current controversy if we return to the standard practice for designing national memorials. It will take a fresh start to rescue Ike’s memorial from the uncertain future his commission has brought about.
Sam Roche is a writer and a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Architecture. He is the spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial.