THE DISPUTE between the Eisenhower family and architect Frank Gehry over his design for the former president’s memorial on the Washington Mall is both regretful and familiar. The family criticizes Gehry’s decision to portray Eisenhower, who had been the supreme Allied commander for the invasion of Normandy, as a barefoot boy from Abilene, Kansas, staring at a tapestry depicting the great achievements in his future.
The Eisenhowers would rather have a statue of him as World War II commander or president. Memorials, however, belong to the country; they aren’t the province of a great leader’s descendants. That said, architects should be accepting of family input, and Gehry, who has turned a blind eye, should meet with the Eisenhower family to explain his concept. It’s a simple matter of respect.
Admittedly, something seems to have been lacking in a process that has resulted in such a public argument involving a family that’s usually known for its loyalty, respectability, and privacy. Gehry, one of the world’s most famous architects, is a man of brash artistic confidence and vision. While he and the Eisenhowers represent a clash of cultures, there may be amendments that could be made to Gehry’s design to satisfy the family without undermining the architect’s integrity.
Designs for national memorials have rarely been without some level of controversy; no one concept can reflect the diversity of opinions that surround any major figure or event. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, listing the names of every American victim on a black slab, was criticized for being too depressing; today, it is a classic whose influence is visible in other memorials, including for the 9/11 victims.
President Franklin Roosevelt, who spent so much time hiding his polio, is now memorialized in a wheelchair, cheerfully rooting America on to victory. Many found this portrayal an affront to how Roosevelt would have wanted to be remembered. Today, it is an empowering image for people with disabilities.
Eisenhower did achieve much from humble beginnings. His descendants can establish, without taxpayer money, other memorials and they are intimately involved with his presidential library. Still, the family is urging the Capital Planning Commission to halt its approval of the memorial, though that could delay its planned dedication on Memorial Day, 2015. That will be 70 years after the end of the war, which was about more than one boy, one soldier, or even one president.