WASHINGTON (AP) — The future of a planned memorial honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower was thrown into doubt Tuesday as lawmakers questioned the project’s design and cost and the 34th president’s family called again for the memorial project to be redesigned.
A House panel hosted a hearing on the 14-year-old project, which is planned for a site on the National Mall near the National Air and Space Museum. Planners could lose that space, though, without an extension soon from Congress.
For more than a year, the memorial’s design by architect Frank Gehry has been criticized by some for its “avant-garde approach” to memorial architecture and praised by others for its innovative elements. Gehry proposed a memorial park for Eisenhower with statues of the two-term president and World War II hero — framed by large, metal tapestries depicting a Kansas landscape from his boyhood home.
On Tuesday, Eisenhower’s family threw its support behind new legislation in Congress that would scrap the design, start a new design competition and block any more federal funding for the current concept. Already about $60 million has been allocated for the $142 million project.
Eisenhower’s family has objected to Gehry’s design, calling it “too extravagant” — in particular the metal tapestries held up by 80-foot-tall columns.
“Continuation of the status quo … will doom the prospect of building a memorial,” said Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter. “It is time to go back to the drawing board, with an open process for the redesign of the memorial.”
The family, she said, supports new legislation from Utah Rep. Rob Bishop that would redirect the project. Susan Eisenhower said she knew of no other presidential memorial built over the objections of the president’s family. She called for an open accounting of all the money spent so far and an outside review of the project’s management.
According to figures provided to The Associated Press, about $22.2 million remains unspent in the federal Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s bank account from $30.9 million allocated by Congress in the 2012 fiscal year for design and construction.
About $8.7 million has been committed for design work preparing for construction.
The commission’s annual operating cost is about $1.2 million, though Susan Eisenhower told lawmakers that funding should be eliminated. The project should be simplified and less expensive, she said.
“We are, again, back in a period of austerity, much like the 1950s after World War II,” she said, noting Eisenhower managed several balanced federal budgets. “A memorial that is so grandiose and so large in scale sort of misses the point of what his story can offer the American public.”
Retired Brig. Gen. Carl Reddel, the executive director of the memorial commission, told lawmakers that Congress had a strong role in the project since it created the commission with four House and four Senate members, as well as four presidential appointees. He said they have worked hard to reflect Eisenhower’s legacy as president and war general in the design.
“The historical record suggests that great, iconic architecture is always controversial,” he said. There were disputes over memorializing George Washington with an obelisk and over the designs for memorials honoring Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, he told lawmakers.
Several lawmakers weighed in, though, and weren’t satisfied there was enough progress in resolving differences over the design.
The memorial will likely never be completed in its current form, said California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, “because it never will be funded in its current form.” He said it would be out of place among the memorials to Lincoln, Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Bishop, who called the hearing, said he still supports completion of a national memorial to Eisenhower, though he said the current project had become “a monument to a designer with a theme about President Eisenhower.”
Because the memorial project needs to be reauthorized by Congress, he said now is the time to reevaluate what’s been done.
New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rush Holt, who said he likes the current design, asked whether further changes could be made to satisfy critics and keep the project on track.
“The only thing worse than art designed by a committee is art designed by a congressional committee,” Holt said.
Gehry has made some design changes. But there’s been no indication he would rethink the idea of including tapestries with the Kansas landscape. Gehry has said leaving out the imagery from Kansas would omit an important part of Eisenhower’s story because he was so proud to have grown up in the heartland.
The project still awaits final design approvals from regulatory agencies before construction could begin.
Lawmakers, however, said the proposed tapestries would depict mostly trees that aren’t unique to Kansas. Some said the tapestries are the most expensive part of the memorial. But memorial planners said the tapestries account for only 6 percent of the construction cost.
None of the lawmakers who serve on the 12-member memorial commission attended the hearing Tuesday. Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran who championed the memorial project and was the commission’s vice chairman, died in December.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)