NPR: Eisenhower Family Objects to Design for Memorial

NPR’s “All Things Considered” aired an excellent report on the Memorial, which you can listen to here.

Listen to the voice of Daniel J. Feil, the executive architect of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, to hear how defensive he sounds.   That NPR mentions the “Unbuilt Washington” exhibit at the National Building Museum strongly suggests that this wholly inappropriate design need not be built.

Here’s the transcript:

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A controversy now in our nation’s Capitol, it’s over plans for a memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower. As NPR’s Elizabeth Blair reports, members of the Eisenhower family object to the design by architect Frank Gehry and they now want to stop the process altogether.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The site for the Eisenhower Memorial is just south of the Mall, near the Air and Space Museum, with a clear view of the U.S. Capitol. Right now, the space doesn’t look like much and it’s divided by streets. In Frank Gehry’s design, traffic would be redirected. The site would be turned into green space, partly enclosed by three large metal tapestries.

DAN FEIL: And it becomes a park with a memorial within it.

BLAIR: Dan Feil is the executive architect for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. He says the images on the tapestries will depict the vast Kansas countryside where Eisenhower grew up.

FEIL: The idea is to show where he came from and where his value set came from.

BLAIR: Within the park, there will be three different depictions of Eisenhower – as a young boy, as a general, and as U.S. president. The tapestries are made of woven stainless steel that creates an almost transparent mesh-like effect. Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, does not like them.

SUSAN EISENHOWER: You could call it an iron curtain which, you know, symbolically I don’t like the image of that very much.

BLAIR: Eisenhower has several concerns. She’s worried about how the tapestries would survive the elements over time. She thinks the Memorial Commission is moving too fast. But most of all, she thinks the concept places too much emphasis on Eisenhower’s roots.

EISENHOWER: This was about a transformational figure who liberated Europe from the Nazis, and went on to transform America into a global superpower after the war. So, to focus on a little boy and his dreams is a real loss of an opportunity to make a statement.

BLAIR: That characterization of Frank Gehry’s work makes Dan Feil seethe. He says to say the design looks like it’s about a little boy…

FEIL: It’s like saying the Lincoln Memorial is about a guy in a chair. This is about a great man. [Ed.: Who is depicted as a lifesize barefoot little boy, not a monumental statesman.]

BLAIR: Gehry’s design includes inscriptions from three of Eisenhower’s historic speeches, including his presidential farewell speech in 1961.

PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals.

BLAIR: The memorial also includes two large stone carvings. One would show Eisenhower as a General during World War II, addressing the 101st Airborne Division before D-Day. Another would show him as president with his hand on the globe.

FEIL: Gehry wanted an emotional impact with substance and he got it.

BLAIR: Eisenhower’s grandson, David, was an original member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. Dan Feil says he signed off on both the decision to hire Frank Gehry and on Gehry’s tapestry design. David Eisenhower resigned from the commission in December. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

MARTIN MOELLER: With memorials you get a lot of people weighing in with a lot of different ideas and agendas. It’s a very complicated sort of thing to design these projects.

BLAIR: Martin Moeller is the senior curator at the National Building Museum, where there happens to be an entire show about monuments that never happened, called “Unbuilt Washington.” There’s a drawing of a pyramid-style mausoleum that was proposed for George Washington.

MOELLER: But the family intervened, saying he’s already been buried at Mount Vernon, you can’t have the body.

BLAIR: The exhibit also includes plans from the 1960s for an FDR memorial that was never built. Roosevelt’s family rejected those plans because they were too colossal for a man who once said he didn’t want anything bigger than his desk. An FDR Memorial was finally built in the 1990s.

Memorials are so subjective and the people who make the decisions are in Washington, where nobody agrees on anything. Getting beyond the design stage and raising the money for construction are monumental hurdles.

According to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, construction of Frank Gehry’s design will be completed by 2015. Members of the Eisenhower family have requested an indefinite delay.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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