WASHINGTON — A federal commission charged with building a national memorial honoring President Dwight D. Eisenhower voted unanimously Wednesday to approve architect Frank Gehry’s design for a park near the National Mall, allowing the project to move forward over the objections of Eisenhower’s family.
Gehry, whose Los Angeles-based firm was selected for the project in 2009, presented some changes to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission before the vote. He plans to add stone or bronze carvings in bas reliefs depicting Eisenhower’s accomplishments as Army general and president. The carvings will accompany 9-foot-tall bronze statues of Eisenhower that Gehry added to the design last year.
The famous architect said the design evolved over time as he listened to ideas from Eisenhower’s family. He added imagery of the D-Day landing at Normandy in World War II as a backdrop for a statue depicting Eisenhower addressing his troops. To show Eisenhower as president, Gehry plans to add an image of Eisenhower signing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to advance equal rights for African Americans.
“There are some significant changes,” he said. “We did listen. We did listen.”
A sculpture of a young Eisenhower sits on a wall near the other statues, looking out at his future accomplishments. Gehry said he was “more humbled than ever” by Eisenhower’s legacy.
“He was born in a modest frame house, yet he became one of the most revered occupants of the White House,” Gehry said.
The Associated Press got an early look at the design changes ahead of the commission’s formal review and vote.
Gehry’s design calls for the memorial park to be framed with large metal tapestries showing Eisenhower’s boyhood home on the Kansas plains. But Eisenhower’s family objects to the tapestry concept, saying last year that the metal material won’t last forever and is “impractical and unnecessary.”
Adding more images of D-Day and from a key moment of Eisenhower’s presidency make the president’s story more complete, said Daniel Feil, the project’s executive architect.
“There’s more of a dynamic going on because you have two different points in time depicted within one sculptural composition,” Feil said of Gehry’s revisions. “He’s making it stronger. It’s more powerful.”
Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a member of the memorial commission, read a letter from Eisenhower’s granddaughters Susan and Anne Eisenhower voicing continued objections. They wrote the family will not support Gehry’s current design. They have supported legislation in the House to scrap the design and start the process over.
Simpson said the family’s objections should be considered, but he ultimately voted to approve the design.
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts said he and his staff had worked hard to be “honest brokers” to resolve differences with the family. Roberts said he had supported Gehry’s design from the beginning with modifications “because it brings Kansas to the National Mall” and reflects Eisenhower’s roots and values for all Americans.
“At the end of the day, there was just an impasse,” he said. “I’m sorry we have not been able to work things out … but I also know that we have to move forward.”
There is increased urgency to complete the memorial, Roberts said, because the World War II generation that Eisenhower led will soon be gone.
Commission Chairman Rocco Siciliano, who served in Eisenhower’s White House, said Eisenhower’s family has been involved in the project for more than a decade. The president’s grandson, David Eisenhower, was a member of the commission until he resigned in late 2011. Around the same time, Susan Eisenhower began voicing public objections to the scope and scale of the project on behalf of the family.
“The family deserves to be heard, but they do not deserve to be obeyed,” Siciliano said.
Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran called on the commission to vote to endorse Gehry’s design and allow him to move forward to seek further approvals from two federal panels that oversee public art and architecture in the nation’s capital.
Gehry has selected two sculptors to work with his design team. They are Russian sculptor Sergey Eylanbekov, who moved to the United States in 1989, and Penelope Jencks, who created a sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt for New York City, among other figures, and has spent much time living and working in Italy.
During his presidency, Eisenhower took a lead in desegregating public schools in Little Rock, Ark., and in Washington, D.C. So the new imagery of him signing the Civil Rights Act, in particular, adds a new element of history to the memorial.
Above the presidential imagery, historians have proposed a quotation to be carved in stone to capture some of Eisenhower’s values.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” Eisenhower said in a 1953 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, speaking about the rising cost of Cold War-level military spending and the nation’s priorities.
For the imagery of Eisenhower as World War II hero, historians proposed an inscription with this quotation from D-Day: “The tide has turned,” Eisenhower said in an address to his troops. “The free men of the world are marching together to victory!”
The 12-member memorial commission kept Gehry’s metal tapestries concept as part of the design, despite objections from some critics who called it an “avant-garde approach” to memorial architecture. Others have praised Gehry’s concept for its innovation.
Retired Air Force Gen. Carl Reddel, the executive director of the memorial commission, said the combination of imagery from Eisenhower’s Kansas roots, his achievements as supreme Allied commander in Europe and his two-term presidency capture Ike’s unique role in history.
“What you have here is the Eisenhower story as the American story. It’s a great way to provide a narrative,” Reddel said. “Eisenhower was the last president born in the 19th century and the first one to look at reconnaissance photographs taken from satellites in space.”
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