One unexpected point of contention to emerge in today's House hearing about the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial: Maryland Avenue's path through Washington, D.C. While the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation had called the hearing, ostensibly, to discuss new Eisenhower Memorial legislation introduced by its chair, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the focus of the hearing fell squarely on the design by Frank Gehry, FAIA—and on Maryland Ave.
Speaking as an expert on the federal architecture of Washington, D.C., local architect Arthur Cotton Moore introduced an objection that had yet to be registered in the handful of House hearings and the broader public debate about the Eisenhower Memorial: namely, that it violates the spirit of the 1791 L'Enfant Plan and the 1902 McMillan Commission Plan for the city. These plans envision twinned boulevards along Pennsylvania Ave. NW and Maryland Ave. SW emanating from the front steps of the Capitol. Pennsylvania Ave. follows the plan; Maryland Ave, less so. But never mind that Maryland Ave. SW is interrupted by the Virginia Railway Express, among other diversions: Moore's objection to Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial is that it might further interrupt the centuries-old vision for a whole Maryland Ave.
Moore then presented his own design for the Eisenhower Memorial—a design that includes, among other features, twinned colossal statues of President Eisenhower and Supreme Allied Commander holding vigil along a Maryland Ave. restored to the vision of Pierre L'Enfant and James McMillan.
While the National Capital Planning Commission has introduced a plan to do exactly that for Maryland Ave., the Southwest quadrant was not the purview of the House hearing in question. Neither was Moore's memorial design—a fairly audacious presentation, given the time and treasure invested in the design by Gehry. The actual subject of the hearing, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Completion Act, which would zero out federal funding for the memorial and restart the design contest, was hardly mentioned at all.
Here's a rundown of what experts had to say in their testimony before the House.
Rep. Bishop: "We have not relinquished our authority or interest in this area."
Rep. Bishop let others do the talking, for the most part. He was called into another meeting partway through the proceedings. At the top of the hearing, he stated that Congress is the client for Gehry's services, and that the decision will ultimately fall on Congress. Rep. Bishop did not discuss the bill that will give Congress another vote on the Eisenhower Memorial, or discuss what another design process would look like, absent federal funding.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.): "I'd like to dispel the blame that goes to the architect... Political interference put us where we are today."
Rep. Issa, who testified on Gehry's design, noted that the trees to be depicted on a series of woven-steel tapestries, which form a colonnade along Independence Ave. SW, are not unique to Abilene, Kan. (President Eisenhower's boyhood home). The trees are common in Abilene but in other places, too.
Susan Eisenhower: "I do believe that all the commissioners had no idea of my family's objections."
Credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
The granddaughter of President Eisenhower spoke on behalf of members of the Eisenhower family who have soured on Gehry's design. Anne Eisenhower, another vocal opponent of Gehry's design, was present at the hearing as well. Susan Eisenhower testified that the efforts to link the fate of the design to the fate of the memorial has "made adversaries out of stakeholders." But the question at hand—what would restarting the design contest mean, in fact?—was hardly addressed.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.): "When I look at the memorial that has been prepared to Martin Luther King, Jr., it is not the MLK that I grew up on."
Rep. Lummis, who took over the hearing when Rep. Bishop's presence was required at another meeting, said that the design failed as a memorial. In her testimony, she took it for granted that the memorial design process has been problematic. Rep. Lummis directed one leading question to Eisenhower Memorial Commission executive director Gen. Carl Reddel (Retired, Air Force): "What is the goal in avoiding transparency?"
Brig. Gen. Carl Reddel, USAF (ret.): "[Gehry's] door has always been open."
With his testimony, Gen. Reddel defended the work of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, noting that three World War II veterans who served under Gen. Eisenhower have served as members. Gen. Reddel made no particular claims about Gehry, except to say that Gehry has been willing to implement changes to the design and had met with various stakeholders at several points. Gen. Reddel testified that the government process that led to the design was fair—and that controversy is par for the course for any memorial: "History will judge whether it is brilliant." Asked by Rep. Lummis to identify how much of the $30 million federal appropriation for construction had been spent, Gen. Reddell answered that $9 million had been spent. When asked on what, Gen. Reddel said that he couldn't testify about the specific expenditures. An exhaustive technical summary prepared for the National Capital Planning Commission, however, gives a hint about the depth of personnel, research, and testing entailed during the design stage.
National Civic Art Society president Justin Shubow:
"[Memorials] must be made of noble materials—stone and bronze—not industrial materials—concrete and steel."
The leader of the nonprofit that has galvanized the public opposition to Gehry's design for the memorial, Shubow restated his longstanding claims: The design is not appropriate on aesthetic grounds, and the process by which Gehry was selected was not open to all. Although the National Civic Art Society hosted its own Eisenhower Memorial design contest in 2011, the subject of another design contest wasn't raised in the hearing.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.): "Should the bill remove [Eisenhower Memorial Commission] members and defund [the Eisenhower Memorial], or should it amend the Commemorative Works Act?
Rep. Grijalva asked the questions that seemed to drive at the new legislation introduced by Rep. Bishop. He wanted to understand whether the point of the legislation was to change the way that Congress commissioned memorials or simply scrap all of the work of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to date. Unfortunately, no one else took up this line of questioning.
Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.): "I sort of like the design we have now."
Modernism's only elected advocate on hand during the hearing, Rep. Holt asked several experts who testified to answer what, exactly, was so bad about Gehry's design. He pressed Moore to answer why a design for the Eisenhower Memorial needed to address Washington's shortcomings since the McMillan Plan. "Ms. Pelosi would love to have Maryland Ave. as grand as Pennsylvania Ave.," Rep. Holt said, "but that's a question separate from this monument." And he recalled that the design by Maya Lin for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—a design invoked by Susan Eisenhower and other opponents of Gehry's design—met with "fierce objections" in its own day. In the end, Rep. Holt won the hearing with a timeless piece of wisdom: "The only thing worse than art designed by committee would be art designed by a congressional committee."