Politico: GSA Role in Ike Memorial Scrutinized
GSA Role in Ike Memorial Scrutinized
By: Puja Murgai
April 17, 2012 11:20 PM EDT
As Congress’s inquiry into the General Services Administration’s conference spending heats up, critics of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial design are questioning whether there was fancy footwork in choosing the agency to have a hand in the plans.
The National Civic Art Society said in a statement last week that it “encourages an exploration of whether the Eisenhower Memorial Commission,” tasked with memorializing the 34th president, “followed all appropriate legal and ethical procedures in authorizing the use of the GSA Design Excellence Program to select an architect” for the memorial.
During a hearing last month of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands that the Eisenhower Memorial Commission said was intended “to inform and fully brief … members of Congress and the Eisenhower family about all aspects of the Commission’s preferred design concept,” Bill Guerin, assistant commissioner for the Office of Construction Programs at GSA, explained that the agency had assisted the commission with “issues related to the acquisition of office space, human resources and payroll services,” but its role expanded when “the EMC asked GSA to assist in selecting both a design firm and a construction contractor for the memorial.”
GSA had also been involved in the design of the World War II Memorial. A commission created by Congress worked with GSA to select an architect. The rules for the competition originally called for a three-stage review of lead designers’ portfolios but were amended after critics said the process was too restrictive. The competition was instead made open to any U.S. citizen older than 18. Entrants were kept anonymous as a jury of private-sector individuals and government officials created a shortlist from which they selected the designer.
Competitions for the designs of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on the other hand, were open right from the start, and judges — which included members of GSA, though the agency did not run the contests — were kept in the dark on the entrants’ names and backgrounds to preserve their anonymity.
NCAS, among the most vocal critics of the design and selection process for the Eisenhower memorial, said choosing GSA “created a de facto closed competition.”
The commission shot back, saying it’s “not going to dignify the Civic Arts club’s attack.” Chris Cimko, spokeswoman for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, told POLITICO that NCAS “impugns the integrity of the commission, which includes four senators, four members of the House of Representatives and four Americans appointed by the president of the United States, including David Eisenhower, who served as a commissioner for over a decade.”
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission has publicly backed GSA’s choice of Frank Gehry, the PritzkerPrize-winning architect, saying in a statement last month, “We confirm our selection of him [and] confirm our enthusiastic endorsement of his design concept.”
At last month’s hearing, House subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop said, after Guerin detailed the agency’s three-stage process for vetting design firms, “I certainly hope Congress does have some expertise in this area … otherwise, we’re all screwed.”
But Rep. Darrell Issa, who as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee is an ex officio member of the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal agency responsible for approving the proposed plan, has been keeping an eye on GSA. Issa, who chaired a hearing Monday on the agency’s conference spending, asked the Memorial Commission in February to hand over “all architectural designs concerning [the] memorial submitted to the commission” and “a detailed description of the process leading to acceptance of the Frank Gehry submission.”
Issa also reached out to the NCPC, asking the commission to postpone “for a period of at least 120 days … any vote concerning the ‘Gehry’ design as proposed by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.” Issa added, “This would allow NCPC commissioners more time to better understand the complexities of an issue that, up until now, were hidden from public view.”
Testimony at the March hearing included a letter from Gehry, which according to The Associated Press indicated that he is open to the idea of a redesign. But Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter who also testified at the hearing, told POLITICO, “If a redesign is undertaken, we would welcome an open process and competition.”
But when asked about objections to the design selection process, the NCPC and the Commission of Fine Arts, an advisory council that put its seal of approval on the design submitted by the National Park Service on behalf of EMC, wouldn’t touch the subject.
CFA simply said it “is supportive of the goals of the GSA’s Design Excellence Program,” according to secretary Thomas Luebke. And Julia Koster, director of NCPC’s Office of Public Outreach, told POLITICO the commission’s “involvement with the memorial is limited to review of the memorial’s site and design,” adding, “We were not involved with the design competition.”