Rogers aided in Eisenhower Memorial's fresh start

Model of a portion of the revised Eisenhower Memorial
Model of a portion of the revised Eisenhower Memorial

By Sam Roche

Included in the legislation to reopen the federal government was a provision that curbs at least one instance of runaway public spending.

A group of lawmakers that includes Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, delayed construction of the controversial, expensive design proposed for the presidential memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

That design, which looks nothing like other presidential memorials, emerged from an unusually secretive selection process that favored the eventual winner, famed architect Frank Gehry. Delaying its construction is the necessary first step to redesigning the memorial through a more standard public process.

The focus of Gehry's design is Eisenhower the young man from Kansas, not Eisenhower the general or president. He has surrounded this young Eisenhower not with classical colonnades but with gigantic stainless-steel screens that depict the prairie landscape of Kansas. Such novelty doesn't come cheap: Gehry's design for this publicly funded project will cost more than twice its original budget of about $65 million, which is already more than the memorials to Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson would cost if built today.

The commission that oversees the project already has spent two-thirds of the initial $60 million appropriation with little to show beyond Gehry's design, whose opponents include prominent veterans and scholars, the Eisenhower family and budget-minded members of Congress. Also, Gehry's design has not been able to earn the federal approvals that are required before construction can begin. The gigantic stainless-steel metal screens are completely experimental elements never built before.

One federal agency cannot certify they will be durable and permanent, as the law requires, a conclusion justified by testing results that raise questions about the welds that will hold the screens together.

These circumstances are symptoms of the controversy. Its cause is a flawed selection process that left no alternatives to a problematic design. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission eschewed the design competitions that are standard practice. Public competitions consider anonymous submissions and focus exclusively on design ideas. The commission turned instead to a bureaucratic selection process used for courthouses, which seeks experienced architects with relevant experience rather than design ideas. The commission chose Gehry based on his reputation and altered selection criteria to favor a famous architect whose portfolio includes few public commissions.

Chosen before he even finalized a design, Gehry was free to work without fear the commission could go to someone else. Is it any wonder that he produced an unusual, expensive design? Or that critics charge that he, and not Eisenhower, is the real subject of this memorial?

With last month's legislation, Congress moved to put the memorial on sounder financial and procedural footing. This will likely be a slow process given the time, effort and expense already invested in Gehry's design. The legislation refused the commission's request for construction funding and canceled a special rider that allowed it to begin construction before all such funding was in place.

These steps to right the Eisenhower Memorial eventually will have to include redesigning a proposal that's become too contentious to build. When that time comes, we can look to the open competitions we've used to design every memorial on the National Mall since 1981, when a college student named Maya Lin was selected to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

We will have Rogers and his allies in Congress to thank for a more modest, more unifying memorial to Eisenhower, who, after all, fought and governed through consensus.