When the grandchildren of Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a compromise design last week, it seemed likely that Frank Gehry’s memorial to the 34th president would finally get built—perhaps even in time for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, on June 6, 2019.
In a deal brokered by James Baker, Secretary of State under President George H.W. Bush, and an advisor to the memorial commission, Susan Eisenhower and her three siblings agreed to retain the centerpiece of the memorial, to which they had once objected: a 440-foot wide stainless steel tapestry. But it will now feature a representation of the D-Day landing sites in Normandy, France, as they appear today, instead of the plains of Eisenhower’s native Kansas. The memorial will also, somewhat paradoxically, emphasize Ike’s Kansas roots, prominently displaying his words “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.” But where that quote will go hasn’t been decided yet. “That’s part of Mr. Gehry’s assignment,” said Chris Cimko, the spokesperson for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission.
According to Susan Eisenhower, speaking about her grandfather from her home in Washington, “The current compromise focuses on the iconic image of the beaches of Normandy, in peacetime, and that enables us to frame this memorial in terms of his specific legacy as Supreme Allied Commander for Europe. And the peacetime part allows us to create a narrative about his securing the peace during the dangerous years of the Cold War when he was president and led the free world.” She described those as “larger themes” than Ike’s boyhood in Kansas.
She said that President Eisenhower was “a master at finding common ground,” adding, “I think we’ve come up with something now that will be able to bring people together in a way that my grandfather would have approved of. James Baker played a central role in a compromise that makes us very happy.”
What seems clear is that Baker was a persuasive negotiator. That’s because the changes in the design fail to address the concerns expressed repeatedly by Susan Eisenhower, speaking on behalf of her family, after the Gehry design was unveiled in 2011.
Her chief objection was to the metal tapestry, which she said would obscure the Department of Education building behind it. In her House testimony of March 20, 2012, she said that the tapestry was seen by some as an “Iron Curtain” and that the massive pylons supporting it could be construed as missile silos.
But during the phone call on Tuesday, she turned the conversation away from those concerns. “Nobody in life get everything exactly the way they want, nor should they,” Eisenhower said.
According to Justin Shubow, the president of the National Civic Art Society, an organization that fomented opposition to the Gehry memorial, “a number of powerful people in Congress remain steadfastly opposed to the design.” But with the June 2019 anniversary approaching, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the commission’s chairman, said he will seek a congressional waiver of the requirement that memorials be fully funded before construction can start. The waiver would allow site work to begin while the design is being finalized—which, in Shubow’s view, could make Gehry’s memorial a fait accompli.
Where was the architect when changes to his design were being hammered out? According to the commission spokesperson, “As soon as we became aware of the agreement, we informed Mr. Gehry. I believe he was called by senior executives of the commission.” She added, “I don’t know if he has put pencil to paper yet. If he hasn’t started yet, hopefully in the near future.
Gehry was unavailable to comment.