Tuesday, March 20, 2012
The House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands was the latest forum for the ongoing controversy surrounding plans for an Eisenhower Memorial designed by well-known architect Frank Gehry whose portfolio includes designing the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Discussion boiled down to whether the current proposal can be altered to reach a compromise or whether it is necessary to go back to the drawing board altogether.
"Clearly we do not have consensus today," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Carl Reddel, Executive Director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, when asked about his perceptions at the end of the Congressional hearing. He told the subcommittee that the commission believed it had consensus from its members, the Eisenhower family and the public until last July when conflicting views surfaced. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission worked with the U.S. General Services Administration to select a design through the GSA's Design Excellence Program and was reviewed by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). The selection immediately drew an alternative competition from arts groups opposed to the Gehry plan.
The proposed design includes reliefs of two famous images of Eisenhower in his roles as president and general, large steel "tapestries," a statue of Eisenhower, interactive educational technology, and column-like structures placed throughout the 4-acre park.
During the hearing, critics of the project voiced concerns about the size, materials and message included in the current plan. Susan Eisenhower said her grandfather would neither like nor understand the memorial intended to honor his life.
"He would have wanted something on a smaller scale, I believe," she said. "This is an enormous thing."
Supporters of the proposed design defended its merits, pointing out the range of elements representing Eisenhower's myriad accomplishments throughout his life. And they pointed to ways the Eisenhower Family's opinions and the public's concerns were considered. A letter submitted into the record seemed to indicate that Gehry was willing to work with the family to alleviate their concerns.
A final version of the design still must be approved by the NCPC before construction can begin. While originally scheduled for review by NCPC at its April 5 hearing, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission asked the National Park Service to remove it from the agenda.
The decision was announced in a March 14 press release without an explanation for the delay. It does, however, state that the additional time will allow the group "to inform and fully brief other interested parties - including other Members of Congress and the Eisenhower family about all aspects of the Commission's preferred design concept."
On February 29, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sent a letter to the NCPC asking that any decision to approval final plans for the monument be postponed at least 120 days to allow more time for understanding the complex issues surrounding the decision.
Another point of contention is the process used to select Gehry. Susan Eisenhower said the process was neither democratic nor transparent. The National Civic Art Society (NCAS), represented by chair emeritus and Director Howard Segermark, testified to the process that he said excluded new or unknown designers from applying because they were asked to submit a portfolio instead of a design proposal.
William Guerin, assistant commissioner for the office of construction programs in the public buildings service of the GSA, explained the program as a three-phase process that requires the evaluation of past work, a shortlist of proposals for interviews, and then the review of proposals for design. In this case, a review board considered the recommendations and selected Gehry for the project.
NCAS has been among those questioning the actions of the committee during that time frame, including the lack of meeting minutes. "I think the main thing we want to hammer out is what happened between July 2007 and March 2009," said Eric Wind, chairman emeritus and secretary of NCAS. "That's almost a two-year gap." And he said the minutes from the 2009 meeting reference votes and decisions from the missing time period.
Some of those questions might be answered in a House Oversight Committee review initiated by another Feb. 29 letter from Issa asking the Memorial Commission to submit copies of all designs submitted for the project and "a detailed description of the process leading to acceptance of the Frank Gehry submission, including a breakdown of any and all votes taken pertaining to any submission." Those documents now are under review by the committee.
The Memorial Commission did not return a call for comments about the Tuesday hearing.
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