WASHINGTON — President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s family wants a memorial in the nation’s capital redesigned, saying the current plans overemphasize his humble Kansas roots and neglect his accomplishments in World War II and the White House.
Architect Frank Gehry has proposed a memorial park framed by large metal tapestries with images of Eisenhower’s boyhood home in Abilene, Kan. In the park, a statue of “Ike” as a boy would seem to marvel at what would become of his life, leading the Allied forces and becoming president. From the White House, he integrated schools and the military, and created NASA and interstate highways. Additional sculpture elements would depict Eisenhower as general and president.
Gehry’s idea echoed Eisenhower’s speech when he returned to Kansas after the war and spoke of a “barefoot boy” who achieved fame in Europe. He came home “to say the proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.”
Anne Eisenhower, one of the president’s granddaughters, sent a formal objection to National Capital Planning Commission on Tuesday on behalf of the family. Still, she noted Gehry is a talented architect.
“What one has to say is he’s missed the message here,” she told The Associated Press. “The mandate is to honor Eisenhower, and that is not being done in this current design. Or, shall we say, it is being done in such a small scale in relation to the memorial that it is dwarfed.”
National Capital Planning Commission Executive Director Marcel Acosta said in a short statement the panel “appreciates the comments provided by the Eisenhower family.”
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which hired Gehry, said they plan to seek final approval of the design in March and hope to break ground this year.
Images of Eisenhower as a general addressing troops before D-Day and as president studying the globe would be represented in stone in “heroic scale,” said Daniel Feil, the project’s executive architect. With all the attention on Gehry’s tapestries, some failed to see other aspects of the memorial, he said.
Feil said he does not expect to make any major changes to Gehry’s design.
The memorial commission said David Eisenhower, the president’s grandson who previously sat on the commission, never voted against any of the design proposals or voiced objections. He resigned from the group in December.
“In terms of the family, it’s very hard in a sense to understand where all of it is coming from,” Feil said.
Gehry has said he wants to make sure the Eisenhower family approves the design, but he has dismissed the idea of using a traditional statue, saying all the great sculptors are long gone.
Gehry’s design follows the trend of other memorials honoring President Franklin D. Roosevelt, World War II veterans and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Those memorials are broad spaces with many elements to engage visitors.
Susan Eisenhower, another granddaughter, said “Ike” is simply the wrong figure to memorialize with an avant-garde approach. He was a traditionalist and bewildered by modern art, she said.
In a 1962 speech at the dedication of his presidential library, Eisenhower spoke of modern art as “a piece of canvas that looks like a broken down tin lizzie (Model T Ford), loaded with paint, has been driven over it.”
“Just about everybody on the mall had humble origins,” she said. “But you don’t get to the mall because you had humble origins. You get to the mall because you did something for which the nation is grateful.”
Eisenhower’s son, John Eisenhower, 89, wrote a letter saying the family is united in its desire to have the design re-examined. He called for a simple memorial in stone.
Beyond the memorial’s images, the family is worried about the symbolism of tapestries towering eight stories high because “Ike” was a humble man. Something smaller would make more sense, Susan Eisenhower said.
The memorial also would have its back to the Lyndon B. Johnson Department of Education Building, which sends the wrong message because Eisenhower and Johnson accomplished much together, the family wrote.
Memorial planners have said the tapestries will be transparent and won’t block views of the building.
The family also questions the sustainability of the metal material and who would keep the woven metal clean of leaves and trash caught by the tapestry.
“Great monuments to our leaders are simple in design and made of durable stone for a reason,” the family wrote.
The debate comes as families take a stronger role in national memorials. Martin Luther King Jr.’s children and late wife helped shape the new King Memorial.
In the 1990s, Roosevelt’s family was divided over how a disabled president should be portrayed. A statue of Roosevelt in a wheelchair was eventually added.
The influence from families emerged with the Oklahoma City bombing memorial and more recently with the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, said Kirk Savage, author of “Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape.”
Representing Eisenhower as a teenage boy, as Gehry proposed, would be interesting, Savage said, because it makes people relate to him in a different way, perhaps more closely.
“It’s about humanizing the leader, bringing him down into our space and our world, so that we can engage with him,” Savage said. “If they had just decided to do a statue of him in a military uniform or as president, in a way it wouldn’t have provoked any commentary at all.
“No one would have really paid attention.”
Davis Buckley, an architect who has designed other memorials in Washington, said a more daring approach with Eisenhower’s memorial makes sense because “Ike” established the basis “for who we are now in the 21st century.” Many people may forget that he integrated schools and created and the Federal Aviation Administration.
“He was a visionary, and I think that it is appropriate to push the design envelope in terms of what this memorial is,” Buckley said. “It’s a question of how they get there.”
Susan Eisenhower said the family is trying to be constructive and ensure there is a full public discussion.
“We knew him better than anybody,” she said. “I just don’t feel any part of him in this.”