Ike Memorial Design Testing Shows Govt. Materials Experts Have Serious Concerns About Durability and Cleanliness

Debris Being Introduced to the Eisenhower Memorial Tapestry Mockup; Source: National Capital Planning Commission
Debris Being Introduced to the Eisenhower Memorial Tapestry Mockup; Source: National Capital Planning Commission

Debris Being Introduced to the Eisenhower Memorial Tapestry Mockup; Source: National Capital Planning Commission Technical Report

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 12, 2013

CONTACT: [email protected] or (202) 670-1776

[See also the press release on an earlier NCPC technical report here.]

Eisenhower Memorial Design Testing Shows Government Materials Experts Have Serious Concerns About the Memorial’s Durability and Cleanliness

The National Capital Planning Commission today released the latest technical report on the planned national memorial to President Eisenhower. The materials-testing report shows that the NCPC must not place the memorial on its agenda since the testing—on an experimental design—is far from complete.  The two most important reasons for concern are:

1) The testing of the durability of the welds—the greatest durability concern—has not yet occurred. The memorial’s cables will be connected by hundreds of thousands if not millions of welds. To quote the letter in the report from the National Institute of Standard’s material’s expert:

. . . I would be interested in the scheme of tests to be used to evaluate the welding processes and resulting metal structures once you [Gehry’s firm] reach that phase in your process. These tests will be critical for assessing the lifespans of the tapestries. [p. 34 of the PDF]

And to quote the comments from Smithsonian’s preservation expert:

I concur with [the National Institute of Standards] that the greatest concern is not with the stainless-steel alloy but with the welds, since welding creates slightly different metallic compositions leading to corrosion. I also expect that it may be difficult to achieve good welds for the braided cables that create the tapestry images . . . . [p. 35 of the PDF]

2) The time-period of the durability testing is entirely inadequate. The testing shows at best that the steel tapestries might last a mere 100 years, when they are required by law to be permanent. The report even discusses the possible need to replace the tapestries every 100 years. To quote the letter in the report from the Department of the Army’s materials expert:

Design and operational strategies for 100 Year Long-term Memorial Durability:  . . . it was suggested that an identical set of duplicate tapestries be considered as part of an interchangeable modular system. The use of an interchangeable system of tapestry panel duplicates would minimize unsightly disruptions at the memorial site by having “new” panels immediately available for fast onsite exchanges. The ability to then refurbish and repair the degraded or damaged tapestry panels under ideal conditions at an offsite location would ensure the highest quality and would enhance overall memorial safety versus the alternative of onsite in-situ repairs of single copy tapestry panels. When exchanged, the older panels could easily be restored to near new conditions via re-welds to reattach missing or damaged wires . . . and could be stored in reserve until the partner panel is ready for its cycle of maintenance. The extra panels would also be good insurance in the event of any unforeseen catastrophic events such as vehicle collisions, crane accidents, tree falls, or accidents during maintenance. [p. 36 of the PDF]

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In addition, a disconcerting finding in the report is that tapestry has the potential to drop dangerous snow and ice on visitors—something the testing has not even addressed.

To quote the letter from the Army’s expert:

One issue that was perhaps not as well considered was the aftermath or transitional conditions produced from the inevitable melting of heavy icing. These conditions would consist of partial melting followed by potential releases of heavy ice sections that could injure memorial site visitors or passing pedestrians unfortunate enough to be located underneath the structure at one of these release events. [pp. 36-37 of the PDF]

Consider that the tapestries will overhang the site’s two main pedestrian paths, which cannot conceivably be barricaded. Such potentially injurious snow and ice is the same exact problem that bedevils the Frank Gehry-designed business school at Case Western Reserve.  As the Associated Press reported:

In its first winter, snow and ice have been sliding off the long, sloping stainless-steel roof, bombarding the sidewalk below. . . . The university ordered barricades erected on the sidewalk to keep pedestrians away after the first big snow of the season produced something like an avalanche off the roof, said J. B. Silvers, the associate dean for resource management and planning. No one has been hurt, Mr. Silvers said, but ”I asked for the sidewalk barricades so we wouldn’t have people getting snow inadvertently dumped on their heads.”

This is no surprise since a number of Frank Gehry’s previous experimental works have suffered major design flaws.

Furthermore, the cost estimate for the maintenance is unrealistically low.

At the same time NCPC released the materials report, it also released the National Park Service’s estimate of the maintenance cost for the memorial. The estimated maintenance cost is $37.1 million over 50 years. (This cost is not included in the memorial’s $142 million price tag.) However, that estimate falsely assumes that the tapestry will be washed merely one time per year, when to prevent corrosion and to remove unsightly dirt and debris, it will need to be sprayed far more frequently. To quote the Smithsonian’s expert:

As a conservator, I expect soiling is likely to be a significant maintenance problem for the tapestry given the many layers of cable and wire that we saw on the handmade samples . . . : as many as seven on each face for a total of 14! Not only will dirt contribute to poor appearance, but it will increase corrosion of the stainless steel. Guano may also disfigure the tapestry, since I expect that the box beam at the top will be an appealing perch for birds, and nesting may also occur.  . . . I submit that the recommendation of a simple “wash-down on a yearly basis” with water and soap or a mild detergent, as proposed . . . , is likely to be too infrequent. [p. 31]

NCPC should not review the project until a realistic maintenance estimate is provided.

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All of the above gives overwhelming grounds for delaying NCPC’s review of the memorial design, which has not significantly changed since the Eisenhower Memorial Commission last submitted it for review. According to National Civic Art Society chairman Justin Shubow, “Most Americans wouldn’t want to live in a house built with untried experimental technology—especially one designed by an architect known for his history of design flaws.  We should not take a technological chance with a national memorial, let alone honoring a famously prudent and solid leader. We must scrap Gehry’s design before the elements do.”

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