Greater Greater Washington

The Eisenhower Memorial is moving forward, but metal tapestries might get in the way of the view

A proposed memorial to President Eisenhower in Southwest DC keeps trudging through the federal approvals process, even as it's surrounded by controversy. But federal planners want some changes, especially to the way the memorial affects views of the Capitol.


The Eisenhower Memorial from Independence Avenue, SW. All images from Gehry Partners/AECOM.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) will review the project at its meeting Thursday. NCPC doesn't decide whether the memorial is aesthetically good enough; that job lies with the Commission on Fine Arts. But it will consider whether the design meets various technical requirements, complies with federal laws on memorials, and most of all how it fits into the commission's interpretation of the L'Enfant Plan.

The NCPC staff recommendation carries a lot of weight with the commission board, which will make the decision. The big news in the report was that repeated tests found that the 80-foot-tall stainless steel tapestries, which are a major (and very controversial) part of the design, dramatically exceeded durability requirements.

The National Park Service also found that the memorial's maintenance costs would be about the same as those of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and less than half of the World War II Memorial's.


A 2014 plan drawing of the memorial square.

The report says that the current design meets 4 of the 7 principles NCPC set down for the memorial in 2006: It creates a green space, respects the surrounding architecture, helps to restore Maryland Avenue, and creates a unique commemorative space.

However, the staff had some objections about how the tapestries affect the monumental openness the NCPC sees in the L'Enfant Plan. Other concerns revolved around lighting and pedestrian circulation.

The design of the memorial has changed considerably over the past four years. Critics have portrayed Frank Gehry's attitude as inflexible, but the NCPC submission package shows a dizzying number of alternatives and tweaks. Documents given to the CFA show even more.

In the wake of a bitter conflict with President Eisenhower's grandchildren, Gehry added larger-than-life statues in front of the bas reliefs, adjacent to a life-size statue of teenaged Eisenhower. These changes rightly put more emphasis on Eisenhower's accomplishments.

Officials wanted to be sure the tapestries would survive exposure to the elements over a long period of time. Independent studies tested tapestry elements' resistance to corrosion, impact, and fatigue. The corrosion tests subjected the tapestry to water, salt, soot, and sulfur dioxide, simulating acidic pollution that causes damage to the stone and bronze typical of DC's monuments.


The side tapestries serve as gateways to the memorial complex.

Using the stainless steel alloy that the fabricator has chosen, 317L, there was almost no corrosion, and welds held 5 times the expected load even after a thousand-hour salt water shower. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the Department of Defense, and the Smithsonian Institution concluded that the tests met their standards.

The Park Service also dismissed concerns from opponents that trash would accumulate; the largest concern seems to be that the designers did not pay enough attention to the effects of bird poop.

Viewsheds strike again

However sturdy, the tapestries infringe on the Maryland and Independence Avenue rights-of-way, the NCPC staff report argues, and diminish the significance of the surrounding buildings in making an urban space.


A model shot of sightlines through the 2013 version.

The report finds that the tapestries and columns change the view towards the Capitol significantly, specifically narrowing it from the full 160-foot right-of-way to a 95-foot gap. The Gehry team argues that the rules permit artworks like the tapestries to occupy the right-of-way, but not a 50' gap at the center called the cartway. The designers say that the tapestries frame the view of the Capitol Dome, bringing more attention to it.

NCPC staff agree in principle, but say the 10' diameter, 80' tall columns and semi-opaque screens impact the view enough to violate this rule. Moreover, they say this approach contradicts L'Enfant's vision for wide-open monumental avenues.


A comparison of setbacks and the outboard column.

Similarly, the NCPC report found that one column along Independence Avenue extends past a 50-foot setback line matching the adjacent Wilbur Wright (FAA) and Wilbur Cohen (SSA) buildings. The design team argues that since setbacks on Independence Avenue range from 24' to 133', NCPC's choice to use directly adjacent buildings is arbitrary.


Streetwalls along Independence and Constitution.

Finally, the report finds that the way the tapestries create a semi-transparent precinct within the existing building fabric overshadows the existing buildings, particularly the LBJ Department of Education building. The bottom third of the tapestries would be almost solid, the middle section would be around half solid, and the top, around 20%. The report deems this level of density to be too high to respect the architecture of the building behind it.


Rendering from Reservation 113, showing the impact of the tapestries.

I understand the concerns of the NCPC staff. The L'Enfant Plan is a landmark that deserves respect. However, compared to the rigor of the technical analysis, the justifications for the principles are a little thin.

Unoccupiable columns are not buildings. Semi-transparent screens are not simply walls. The reciprocal views aren't ruined on Maryland Avenue. Screening a background isn't the same as blacking it out. Using the unremarkable, objectlike Wilbur Wright Building to establish a 50' setback needs more justification than what's in the report, particularly since NCPC violated its own height rules to approve the MLK memorial.

Conceptually, treating the 160-foot corridor as the total viewshed turns it into a beautiful abstraction unmoored from the experience of people actually there. It defers too much to the beautiful emptiness that's great for looking at but not so good for daily life.

There's already a stately, monumental avenue across the Mall. The Eisenhower Memorial offers a future for Maryland Avenue that preserves the key view while putting pedestrians first.


The LBJ Promenade, showing potential uses.

The memorial's most underappreciated aspect is the proposed LBJ Promenade, a street-sized walkway framed by the Education building and the tapestries. Meant to make more of pedestrian connection than is currently there, that kind of dense space is what a live-work Southwest needs. The NCPC may still find fault with the position of the tapestries, but I'd be more persuaded by their reasoning if they emphasized the tidiness and monumental emptiness less for this site.

The Eisenhower Memorial still has a long way to go before a shovel hits the ground. The agencies with power to approve or halt the memorial have very different opinions. The Commission of Fine Arts likes how the tapestries frame the view to the Capitol, but a few members question their ability to enclose the space. A Congressional committee has proposed stripping funding from the memorial for the year, but that might change if NCPC approves the design. There is a lot of uncertainty at this time.

At the same time, the team has met many of the objections from the Eisenhower grandchildren. The technical evaluations of the memorial have been promising. The doubt in my mind has been eroding. It's too early to count the memorial out.


A tapestry, the east path, and the presidential tableau.
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Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He writes on architecture and Russia at цarьchitect

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"At the same time, the team has met many of the objections from the Eisenhower grandchildren."

I don't care what the family thinks. Eisenhower was OUR president and should get a memorial if the American people decide he deserves one. The family can build their own memorial to grandpa if they want. Butt out, lesser Ikes.

by caryoreilly on Apr 2, 2014 2:26 pm • linkreport

There comes a point in every designers process where one has to face the fact that their concept isn't working. Unfortunatly for Gehry, his is being played out on a large stage. At this point, this will be more a monument to Gehry than to Ike.

by Thayer-D on Apr 2, 2014 2:55 pm • linkreport

Thank you for the in-depth coverage. Unfortunately this memorial, like nearly every other memorial on or near the Mall, lacks the truly communal element of a good public space, instead focusing almost entirely on commemorative function.

by Scoot on Apr 2, 2014 3:34 pm • linkreport

This horse is glue. It's time to start over. There are enough congressmen in both parties who want to do an open competition to replace the current design.

by Alf on Apr 2, 2014 4:31 pm • linkreport

First off, on Friday NCPC released a Sept. 2012 letter from Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Rep. Raul Grijalva (ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Public Lands), Rep. Jim Moran, and Rep. Rush Holt that said, "It is our understanding that the NCPC proposed the closure of Maryland Avenue to vehicle traffic and the confinement of the vista from 160 feet to 50 feet to accommodate space for . . . the Eisenhower Memorial . . . . NCPC's decision was a radical departure from the L'Enfant Plan and appears to undercut the District of Columbia's planned redevelopment of the Maryland Avenue corridor recently approved by the DC Council. . . . We believe these past interpretation that have demoted the value of the L'Enfant and McMillan Plans . . . . They also contradict the Commemorative Works Act . . . . The Act . . . states that its primary purpose is to 'preserve the integrity of the comprehensive design of the L'Enfant and McMillan plans for the Nation's Capital.'" http://www.ncpc.gov/DocumentDepot/Letters_Comments.pdf

NCPC also released a March 2012 letter from Mayor Gray in which he essentially sides with the Eisenhower family.

OK, on to Neil. Here's what he wrote in 2010 about the design: "If the sculptural style looks promising, the columns that support the screens already disappoint. In the model, they appear too much like the dowels used to represent the shafts, and not enough like real pieces of architecture. They are mute and unattractive." http://tsarchitect.nsflanagan.net/?p=1634

And he said in 2013: "I concur with Thayer [who criticized the design]. The tapestries are the most expensive and least effective feature of the memorial. They can be replaced with something more inventive." http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/20017/eisenhower-memorial-will-be-a-nice-park-is-that-enough/#comment-200414

Without the columns and tapestries there is no memorial.

As for the columns qua buildings, Gehry previously said about the columns, “They are almost buildings. . . . [T]hey are huge in this scheme. So they are more like buildings.”

And as for the columns in the 160-foot Maryland Ave. viewshed, at a 2005 NCMAC meeting regarding site selection, members expressed concern about there being tall vertical structures in that viewshed. Referring to the heights of the surrounding buildings, the Eisenhower Commission’s executive architect assured them, “Nothing 90-feet high is even being considered.”

While I'm at it, the section in Gehry's own technical report regarding ice buildup is interesting. The expert found that ice is most likely to dangerously accumulate on the loosely woven parts of the tapestry (i.e., the transparent "sky"). He therefore recommended that the art above pedestrian pathways be made more dense (i.e., toward the tops of the tapestry). This obviously would change the art a lot. He also recommended heated pedestrian walkways be installed under the tapestry, which will of course increase the maintenance cost.

Justin Shubow
President, National Civic Art Society

by Justin Shubow on Apr 2, 2014 4:38 pm • linkreport

I have to agree with the naysayers about this design. The "tapestries" in particular seem totally out-of-place in the middle of the L'Enfant City (they'd make more sense if they were surrounded by trees in the middle of Rock Creek Park).

And given his decorated military career, I think Ike's memorial ought to have a classical style that fits in with all the other military memorials in the L'Enfant City—think Grant, Logan, du Pont—albeit on a larger scale. A modern-looking design like this just seems thematically inconsistent with the rest of the city.

by Fran on Apr 2, 2014 4:48 pm • linkreport

I haven't been following this closely but I am surprised to hear that it's "moving forward" - at this point the momentum seems to be with the opponents. And that is a good thing. The design is hideous, just horribly ugly, and, as everyone keeps pointing out, has a lot more to do with Gehry than with Eisenhower. I think it will be a real shame if it goes up.

by Alex on Apr 2, 2014 5:41 pm • linkreport

I don't care about the view, I care about them being ugly and dumb.

by Another Nick on Apr 2, 2014 10:53 pm • linkreport

I think this would serve as a good model for the Eisenhower Memorial.

Him, riding on a jet ski in torn clothes, with a six foot long machine gun of some sort. America!!

And in place of the water, I'd have him riding on an ocean of nazi skulls. Creative license.

by David C on Apr 2, 2014 11:37 pm • linkreport

Another vote against this proposal. I've never liked it - it needs to be scrapped altogether and a fresh start made.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Apr 3, 2014 1:40 am • linkreport

Here we go again. The memorial committee can't back down on the tapestries, it would be like backing down to the nazis after they bombed pearl harbor or something! Ask yourself--would Ike have ever backed down just because something was wildly unpopular? Of course not! It's our duty to put up something ugly and stupid, as an homage to Ike's determination. Or something.

by Mike on Apr 3, 2014 7:17 am • linkreport

It will be interesting to see what the reaction is 10 or 20 years down the line if this design gets built. After all, people thought the Vietnam Memorial was a disgrace and horrible when it was originally conceived, but now the perception is entirely the opposite.

by MLD on Apr 3, 2014 8:25 am • linkreport

@MLD: humans can accustom themselves to pretty much anything over time. The question is really whether this is the best we can do. (Or, the bigger question--do we really have to keep building so many memorials? There are a lot of politicians and we can't possibly fit block-long tributes to all of them into the city. Especially since there are still a few wars that haven't gotten their memorials yet.)

by Mike on Apr 3, 2014 8:39 am • linkreport

My point was that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was derided when it was in concept but after the fact it is obvious that it's a way more powerful and moving memorial than some statue and columns ever would have been.

Perhaps it is not the 'best' we could do. But all of the alternative designs I have seen seem far less interesting and thought-provoking to me than this design.

by MLD on Apr 3, 2014 8:46 am • linkreport

@MLD: I understood what your point was. Some things are initially hated and then become loved. But, other things are initially hated and remain hated or tolerated at best. A lot of people have trotted out the vietnam memorial to justify gehry's monument, but it's just as (if not more) likely that it will fall into the second category as the first. What made the vietnam memorial work was its ability to be a physical touchpoint for a subject which had (and does) deeply traumatized the nation. I'm just not seeing that the gehry memorial has either 1) the interactivity or 2) an audience who cares that deeply about eisenhower -- so the possibility of it ending up with the kind of impact the vietnam memorial has had seems remote.

And it's really important to have this conversation before the darn thing is built, and stop it if necessary, because it's really, really hard to get rid of public monuments once they're built. (Especially the modern "site" monuments, as opposed to a simple statue of a guy on a horse which can be moved behind a building if it's too tacky.) If we build a monstrosity, our grandchildren are going to be having to deal with it.

by Mike on Apr 3, 2014 9:01 am • linkreport

I vote for a simpler, more classical design for the Ike Memorial without the tapestries. Look at the DC Memorial Grove for an example (which only needs a few, also-understated, national elements added to make it into a true WWI Memorial Grove).

by DaveG on Apr 3, 2014 9:58 am • linkreport

Oh lord. Eisenhower was a very good president. But not a great one. Are we eventually going to write hagiographies of every 20th-century president and thus justify memorials to them? This is unnecessary to begin with, and what is there is poorly designed.

In fact, this seems as good a time as any to remind folks that Frank Gehry is still the world's worst living architect.

by LowHeadways on Apr 3, 2014 10:42 am • linkreport

Vietnam Memorial is a bit ugly, but its design is relatively straightforward. These tapestries look like they just won't work.

A General-President should have an equestrian statue, but with a Jeep instead of a horse.

by Another Nick on Apr 3, 2014 2:21 pm • linkreport

@Another Nick: definitely, and wearing an Eisenhower jacket. The jeep's driver, however, may be a point of contention.

by Mike on Apr 3, 2014 2:47 pm • linkreport

Neil,

Thanks for this analysis.

The additional setbacks along the South Side of Independence Avenue are particularly bad. They really do deaden the space along an already very-wide street. I also don't see why NCPC is bringing this up now, as NCPC's own Southwest EcoDistrict plan assumes the redevelopment of the Forrestal building and eliminating the extra setback at that time: http://www.ncpc.gov/swecodistrict/Final_Public_Meeting_Presentation_120313.pdf

Similarly, the arguments against any structure within the 160' ROW for Maryland Avenue are equally unconvincing. The entire focus of the memorial site is about creating a square that interupts the avenue (like many other such spaces in the city). There might be reasons to object to the tapestries, but this logic about viewsheds and the right of way is entirely unpersuasive.

I also don't see how this interferes at all with DC's Maryland Avenue Plan. Nothing in that plan presumed a direct traffic connection between Maryland Avenue and Independence.

by Alex B. on Apr 3, 2014 4:24 pm • linkreport

@Mike I did think about that. There's definitely photo-op pictures of Ike driving himself, so that would probably be the safest way to go.

Too bad we're not talking about President Patton because they we could just build a giant horse for his statue. Or possibly elephant.

by Another Nick on Apr 3, 2014 4:51 pm • linkreport

@Mike - I agree with your points on why the Vietnam Memorial is different from the Eisenhower Memorial, and that the Eisenhower Memorial doesn't have the emotional or communal backing or support that would be needed for it to be a treasured future memorial that is well received by most people.

I guess I have a few major concerns with this memorial (albeit I have not read through all the material):
1) Why a tapestry wall in the first place? Does it speak to Eisenhower himself? I like the idea that it helps to frame the space, but it needs to better speak to the purpose and reason for the memorial itself (why Eisenhower?).
2) Following on item #1, the tapestries need to signify the importance of the president in what is shown on it. Why pictures of Kansas? What importance was that to his legacy as a president and leader of the US? and
3) The tapestries needs to better respect its surrounding by not covering it up. I like the tapestry panels - but they seem way too opaque to really do the monumental views and buildings in the area justice. You can create the feeling of a room without making opaque walls that block views (or at least do so on 1/3 to 2/3 of the walls) and create pockets of areas that are blocked from public view (and possibly therefore unsafe).

I also wonder why we are spending so much money on a monument to recognize a president (albeit a good leader) when we have failed to recognize other deserving and worthwhile people and sacrifices and events (etc.).

by CityGal26 on Apr 3, 2014 11:26 pm • linkreport

GGW, thanks for the great coverage of the Eisenhower Memorial. What a crazy approval process (for a truly crazy design!)

by Matt Sickle on Jun 16, 2014 8:18 pm • linkreport

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