My Testimony to Congress on the “Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Completion Act”
On March 19, I testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation on the proposed legislation H.R. 1126, the “Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Completion Act,” which calls for a new design for the Eisenhower Memorial. My testimony reflected my family’s desire to see an Eisenhower Memorial that is “simple, sustainable, and affordable”:
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee,
I wish to express our thanks to Chairman Bishop and the Committee for the opportunity to testify today. I would also like to echo the appreciation we have for everyone—Congress, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and architect Frank Gehry—for their commitment to a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, D.C.
My sister, Anne, is with us from New York. On behalf of the Eisenhower family, we are grateful to Chairman Bishop for introducing a bill to sustain the momentum on the building of an Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C.
On hearing the news of this bill, Eisenhower Memorial Commission Chairman Rocco Siciliano said in an email reported in the press: “I am saddened by Congressman Bishop’s attempt to thwart the memorialization of one of America’s greatest generals and presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower.”
My family and I respectfully, but emphatically, disagree:
Congressman Bishop’s legislation is designed to assure a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower, not to thwart it. From the moment the current design was adopted, some members of the Commission and the staff were determined to link the proposed Frank Gehry design to the very future of the memorial itself. This is unprecedented in the history of presidential memorials. This rigidity has damaged the effort to build a memorial. The approach has made adversaries out of stakeholders and alienated even the greatest supporters of this process.
Mr. Chairman, you and Chairman Issa have been the first to address the impasse that has unfortunately developed. We applaud you both for your efforts. We would also like to thank the co-sponsors of your bill. Continuation of the status quo, as you have pointed out, will doom the prospect of building a memorial. You are right that no consensus on the memorial design has emerged and that it is time to go back to the drawing board, with an open process for a new design of the memorial.
Significant stakeholders believe that the Gehry design is, regretfully, unworkable. My family – as well as countless members of the public and the media – thinks the design is flawed in concept and overreaching in scale. The recent durability study notes the limited lifetime of the metal scrims, as well as the potential ice and snow hazard to the public. It also notes that the current design, to meet presidential memorial specifications, would require a duplicate set of scrims to be furnished—with the additional costs that would entail. Yet despite all this, the Commission’s approach is to plow ahead with a design that has virtually no support outside of a percentage of the architectural community—which has understandably rallied more in defense of architect Frank Gehry than for the specific memorial design itself.
For more than ten years my family raised concerns and objections that were ignored. We believe they were never adequately communicated to all the Commission members. Any disagreement we had with them was criticized as an attempt to scuttle the building of the memorial. This could not be farther from the truth. The president’s only surviving son, our father, John S. D. Eisenhower, has been clear about his desire to see a memorial, but one which reflects his father’s values and enjoys national consensus. More than once this year he has weighed in, most recently this fall in a letter to the late Senator Daniel Inouye. I am providing a copy of the letter today, but the key points he writes are this:
- Though “creative, the scope and scale of it [the Gehry design] is too extravagant and it attempts to do too much. On the one hand it presumes a great deal of prior knowledge of history on the part of the average viewer. On the other, it tries to tell multiple stories. In my opinion, that is best left to museums.”
- “Taxpayers and donors alike will be better served with an Eisenhower Square that is a green open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations from his most important sayings. This will make it possible to utilize most of the taxpayer expenditures to date without committing the federal government or private donors to pay for an elaborate and showy memorial that has already elicited significant public opposition.”
- “Though the members of the Eisenhower family are grateful to those who conceived of this memorial and have worked hard for its success, we have come to believe that the Eisenhower Memorial Commission has no intention of re-examining the concept, even though there would be ample historic precedent for it. It is apparently interested only in convincing us of the virtues of the present design, ignoring my objections as articulated by my daughters Anne and Susan.”
- “I am the first to admit that this memorial should be designed for the benefit of the people, not our family…You may or may not agree with our viewpoint. However, we as a family cannot support the Eisenhower Memorial as it is currently designed – in concept, scope or scale.”
- ”We request that lawmakers withhold funding the project in its current form and stand back from approving the current design.”
The Eisenhower family does support the effort to revitalize this process. Among the first steps might be to defund the current design, including zeroing out money for staff expenditures, except to provide services related to an open and transparent financial accounting of monies used to date, as well as those already committed. A thorough review of the fundraising studies commissioned in the past should also be undertaken, as well as the current efforts underway so that we can assess financial needs going forward.
To expedite this process, perhaps an effort should be made to establish a neutral, non-partisan group to review the elements mentioned above. They could propose the needed organizational changes required for building a strong, responsive commission that can manage an open competitive design process and succeed in building a national consensus on a new memorial design.
Members of my family wish to thank, again, Chairman Rob Bishop and the Committee for holding this hearing, for their commitment to finding a way to resolve this impasse, and for the opportunity to participate. We are deeply grateful to all of Congress for their effort in building a lasting memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
To learn more about Tuesday’s congressional hearing and the Eisenhower Memorial controversy, please see Robin Pogrebin’s piece in the New York Times and Chip Reid and Bob Schieffer’s report with CBS News.