Eisenhower Memorial Commission

Before leaving the White House in 1961, Dwight David Eisenhower warned of the rise of the military-industrial complex. He might also have warned of the memorial-industrial complex, which has produced a tribute to the former president in the nation’s capital that took almost 20 years and $150 million to complete.

The scale of the memorial, which is scheduled to open on Sept. 17, and which was designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, and executed in partnership with AECOM, is staggering. Its key feature is a metal tapestry 60 feet tall and 450 feet wide—almost three quarters of an acre of woven stainless steel, held aloft by piers the height of an eight-story building. The screen replicates a freehand sketch by Gehry himself of Pointe du Hoc, a D-Day landing site in Normandy. The tapestry is nearly transparent in daytime: The gridded façade of the 1961 Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building, designed by the firms Faulkner, Kingsbury and Stenhouse and Chatelain, Gauger and Nolan, is visible behind it. But when the sun goes down, the memorial comes alive. Thanks to the lighting scheme by the New York firm L’Observatoire International, the outlines of Gehry’s sketch glow brightly on the tapestry, to dramatic effect. Meanwhile, the pylons, clad in the same pinkish Ambar limestone as the paving underfoot, are abstract, scaleless elements.

The view of the Capitol from the memorial site
Eisenhower Memorial Commission The view of the Capitol from the memorial site
The core of the memorial
Eisenhower Memorial Commission The core of the memorial

Located just southwest of the Capitol, in a neighborhood of overbearing bureaucratic architecture, Gehry's handiwork is gentle and unobtrusive. In fact, the four-acre site on Independence Avenue feels more like a park than a memorial. Gehry Partners, working with AECOM landscape architect Roger Courtenay, added nearly 100 trees, many of which gently screen the screen. Together, the tapestry and trees soften the relentless, 500-foot-long façade of the LBJ building, which was initially known by the fittingly generic name Federal Office Building No. 6. Critics had feared the tapestry would loom like a giant metal billboard. But the success of Gehry’s design seems to rest on the tapestry’s failure, at least in daytime, to do anything more than temper the façade behind it. Far from being an affront to the LBJ building, it is a salve.

Ike was known for his modesty—he claimed to be prouder of his Kansas boyhood than of any other chapter of his life—which had suggested that the memorial itself ought to be similarly modest. In a 2012 letter, the former president’s son, John S.D. Eisenhower criticized Gehry’s design as “too extravagant” and for trying to tell “too many stories” (a job, he said, that is “best left to museums.") He said he would have preferred a simple statue in a park. But while the end result is more extravagant than that, it is one John Eisenhower, who died in 2013, might have found comforting.

Eisenhower with his advisors, one of the sculptures at the memorial by Sergey Eylanbekov
Eisenhower with his advisors, one of the sculptures at the memorial by Sergey Eylanbekov
A statue of Eisenhower as a boy marks the northwest entrance to the memorial
Eisenhower Memorial Commission A statue of Eisenhower as a boy marks the northwest entrance to the memorial

Gehry, who is 91, is sometimes imagined to be an artiste whose initial ideas are sacrosanct. In fact, clients invariably describe him as willing to change his designs, sometimes repeatedly, in response to criticism as well as to shifts in program and budget. During his career, he has been able to build most of what he envisioned precisely because he is willing to compromise.

Gehry conceived of the tapestry as a way of bringing a bit of enclosure to the site without putting a wall in front of the LBJ building. His original design called for not one but three large panels, arranged in a C-shape that bracketed the rectangular parcel. The panels were to feature scenes of Abilene, Kan.—Ike’s hometown. But civic watchdogs were alarmed that one of the shorter panels would block views of the Capitol from Maryland Avenue, which intersects the site diagonally. And Eisenhower’s descendants believed the focus of the memorial shouldn’t be Ike as a schoolboy but Ike as the Supreme Allied Commander and the 34th president of the United States.

Worse, members of the Eisenhower family said they were offended by the very idea of the tapestry itself. During testimony before Congress in 2013, Susan Eisenhower compared it to the Iron Curtain and the kind of roadside billboards that her grandfather disliked. The massive pylons, she added, might suggest missile silos. The Eisenhower family’s allies in Congress, who would have preferred a more traditional memorial—echoing the attacks on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial 40 years earlier—blocked funding for the project. Gehry’s design was pronounced dead.

The tapestry as seen from the Department of Education side of the memorial
Eisenhower Memorial Commission The tapestry as seen from the Department of Education side of the memorial
Gehry's sketch of Pointe du Hoc in Normandy
Eisenhower Memorial Commission Gehry's sketch of Pointe du Hoc in Normandy

But in 2017, former secretary of state James Baker brokered a compromise: The side panels were eliminated and the subject of the main panel was changed from Abilene to the beaches of Normandy, as seen in a recent photograph. But replicating the photograph in woven metal cables proved unworkable. Eventually, Gehry drew his sketch of Pointe du Hoc, and the artist Tomas Osinski found a way to reproduce it using “threads” of stainless steel welded onto a stainless steel grid. Up close, the result bears a surprising resemblance to the needlework of the Bayeux Tapestry, the 230-foot-long, 11th century depiction of the Norman Conquest of England—housed, of course, in Normandy. From a distance, it is simply a scrim, a medium used successfully for decades by Gehry’s longtime friend, the conceptual artist Robert Irwin, though never representationally.

The scrim may say little about Ike, but other elements of the memorial tell his story. They include two clusters of bronze sculptures by Sergey Eylanbekov, a Russian-born, Long Island, N.Y.–based artist. One depicts Eisenhower addressing the men of the 101st Airborne Division just before D-Day; the other shows him flanked by advisers at the White House. Both are set powerfully against marble bas reliefs. A lone sculpture (also by Eylanbekov) of Ike as a boy in Abilene stands in a far corner of the site. Quotes from some of his best speeches are engraved in stone walls. (Not surprisingly, Ike’s 1953 executive order that led to the purging of thousands of gays and lesbians from the government is not referenced.)

Eisenhower addressing the men of the 101st Airborne Division just before D-Day, one of the bronze sculptures on the site by Sergey Eylanbekov
Eisenhower addressing the men of the 101st Airborne Division just before D-Day, one of the bronze sculptures on the site by Sergey Eylanbekov
Site plan of the memorial
Eisenhower Memorial Commission Site plan of the memorial

None of the memorial’s elements is particularly Gehry-esque. The stone walls are rectilinear and handsomely detailed, as are benches, water fountains, and a small restroom-gift shop-ranger station. (The site is under U.S. National Park Service jurisdiction, and unlike the plaza it replaced, is entirely accessible to wheelchair users.) Indeed, the architect’s blocky forms seem to complement the series of unadorned marble cubes—almost exactly the same color as the memorial—of the National Air and Space Museum across the street. That building, designed by Gyo Obata of HOK and completed in 1976, is in the midst of a $650 million renovation by Quinn Evans that will, somewhat ironically, give it an entrance canopy reminiscent of Gehry's usual swoopy forms.

So is the Eisenhower memorial a success? It depends on whether you think it needed to be built in the first place. In 2013, I argued in the Washington Post that even Ike’s biggest fans could live without it. After all, there is already a World War II memorial in a prominent position on the Mall. Eisenhower’s name, along with his charge to the troops on D-Day, is inscribed on one of its traditionally ornamented stelae. In Abilene, the federal government funds the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, a complex that includes two large, classically inspired buildings, the renovated Eisenhower Boyhood Home, and a handsome statue of the president. The Eisenhower National Historic Site, Ike’s 690-acre weekend retreat in Gettysburg, Pa., is also open to the public at government expense.

I still don’t know if the memorial was necessary. But Gehry’s design should win over even his most hardened critics. Especially if they visit at night.