To save the Eisenhower Memorial, we may need to move it
Construction on the proposed Eisenhower Memorial in southwest Washington has stalled amid criticism of the current design. Critics have challenged specific elements of the design, but few have questioned whether we're putting the memorial in the right place. Could we better honor President Eisenhower by moving his memorial somewhere else?
The proposed Eisenhower Memorial, along Maryland Avenue between 4th and 6th Streets SW, has been a lightning rod for dissent. Criticism centers on the metal tapestries designed to create a "roofless" structure and shield the site from nearby buildings. The memorial's design dispute has gotten so serious that the House may cut funding for the project later this year.
The current site
Congress required that President Eisenhower's Memorial be located to maximize prominence, public access, and availability; ensure thematic appropriateness to Eisenhower's memory; and be feasible while avoiding undue controversy. The chosen site happens to satisfy each of these needs, but not particularly well.
The planned location, to be named Eisenhower Square, is not without symbolism. Placed between the Department of Education and the National Air and Space Museum, the site was designed to create a connection with two agencies that were established during his presidency, the Department of Education and NASA.
But the non-controversial location and symbolism may be illusory. First, the site's lack of controversy mostly reflects the fact that the site is currently an urban dead space with limited development options and a lack of a cohesive neighborhood to protest. This seems a poorly justified reason to choose a certain site.
Secondly, neither the Department of Education nor NASA serves as a key element of President Eisenhower's legacy or the reason for which he's being honored. Few would put the creation of the Department of Education or NASA at the top of Ike's list of achievements, which includes leading the Allied forces in Europe during WWII, ending the Korean War, creating the Interstate Highway System, laying the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement through desegregation of the government and two key Civil Rights laws, and articulating the "Domino System" that defined the Cold War as well as the threat of undue political influence by the "military-industrial complex."
Moreover, even this thematic justification for the location may not make sense in a few years. Departments and agencies frequently move, and while it is likely that the Air and Space Museum (which is not a part of NASA) is there to stay, the Department of Education could move or even consolidated with another agency.
Surely another consideration was proximity to the Mall and to a steady stream of visitors. But where is the value is having a lot of people visit an uninspiring memorial? The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial is far from the crowds and can only be accessed by foot from Virginia, but its sense of solitude is an enhancement to the memorial. Foot traffic should drive our decisions about where to put dry cleaners, not memorials.
The weak justification for the current site and its controversy leads to the inevitable question: Could we get a better design at a better location?
Where else could it go?
DC has plenty of sites to build new memorials. Through the Commemorative Works Acts, Congress created a Memorial Task Force that identified more than 100 locations in 2001 in the DC area suitable for a memorial. The proposed Eisenhower Memorial site made their list of 20 "prime locations." [See the list and map on pages 20-21 of the Task Force's report]
In light of the current controversy, it may be time to start looking at the remaining 19.
Other locations identified by the Task Force might be more appropriate than the current site. Perhaps the South Capitol Street terminus at the Anacostia River, just south of the baseball stadium or the 10th Street Overlook would be fitting. Both are near highways, for which Ike is well known, and the first is soon to be redeveloped and within a very short distance of a pair of military bases. The site on Columbia Island, near Arlington Cemetery and not far from Fort Myer where Eisenhower twice lived, would also be fitting.
Other sites not on the list would also be suitable. Since the Task Force report came out, the Awakening has moved from the southern tip of Hains Point. This site would be a beautiful location for a memorial and one that's within sight of the Army War College that Ike attended in the 1920s. The soon-to-be-redeveloped Southwest Waterfront also presents opportunities.
While historically we have chosen sites within the nation's capital as most worthy of our national attention, a location outside of DC might better honor President Eisenhower. Gettysburg was Eisenhower's home after World War II and where he chose to retire. Because of its prominence within American history, it is well visited and thus can easily meet the 3 requirements of the law authorizing the memorial.
Some might be concerned that a monument to a President in close proximity to the battlefield would detract from the significance of the battle and the address that followed it. But at the same time, Gettysburg would seem a particularly poignant location for a memorial to one of our country's most decorated soldiers.
Eisenhower was a great leader, and he is worthy of a great memorial. If this site constrains his memorial to the point of making it a failure, perhaps the smart thing to do is to start over with a new site.
- Latest Metro map drafts add Anacostia parks and other tweaks
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- Short-term Washingtonians deserve a voice, too
- DC Council makes major policy changes overnight
- Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- Parklets give every block a little park