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Gehry-designed Eisenhower Memorial unveiled after 20 years — during a fraught moment


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new memorial will be dedicated in Washington, D.C., this evening to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as the 34th president and the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary in Europe during World War II.

As Jeffrey Brown reports, the four-acre memorial comes to fruition after 20 years, and internal controversy over its design, and at a time when memorials generally are being reexamined.

The story is part of our arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a sprawling tribute to the man known as Ike, Republican president from 1953 to 1961 and five-star general who planned and executed the World War II invasion of Normandy.

The memorial is situated in a prime, but crowded spot within sight of the nation's capitol, across the street from the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum and National Museum of the American Indian, directly in front of the U.S. Department of Education.

The solution chosen to set it off from that 1961 box-style building, a steel tapestry, representing an abstract view of the Normandy cliffs, especially vivid by night. It's based on a drawing by the man who designed the memorial, famed architect Frank Gehry.

Gehry, now 91, is renowned for buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, the New World Center in Miami Beach.

But he had never designed a memorial, nor had he designed any structure in Washington, D.C.,

Frank Gehry: My first reaction was, why would I want to go to Washington and get involved with all of that?

I realized how impossible that site was to manage, because it had traffic. It had three office buildings. You couldn't put something in front of them easily.

Jeffrey Brown: But Gehry realized he could play to that environment, nestling a monument to Eisenhower amid government entities that Ike as president was responsible for helping bring about, the Department of Education, the Federal Aviation Administration, and what is now known as Health and Human Services.

Frank Gehry: That became powerful to consider, that here he was being placed in the milieu of his accomplishments, represented by these three office buildings.

Jeffrey Brown: But critics, including many in the Eisenhower family itself, were not supportive of the early architectural style, wanting a more traditional approach to what Gehry had in mind. He says they were:

Frank Gehry: Trying to derail a modernist view of a memorial in Washington. They thought it should be historicist and classical.

I tried to respect classical, actually. The columns are a symbol of government buildings. And so I used them to hold the tapestry.

Jeffrey Brown: Gehry's modifications won over the family, including grandson David Eisenhower, an historian who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He served on the memorial commission.

David Eisenhower: Well, my idea for it, because I think the memorials need to convey something, is that Dwight Eisenhower was part of a great collective effort in the 1940s.

And that is America's effort in World War II. And he was very much a part of that. And he was also typical of the American who had this experience and joined in this great enterprise. His greatest speech, I believe, was probably at the Guildhall on June 12, 1945, where he was where he was accepting the freedom of London: "I come from the heart of America."

Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower: I come from the very heart of America. The town where I was reared are far separated from this great city.

Jeffrey Brown: The memorial includes a statue of the boy from Abilene by sculptor Sergey Eylanbekov. It was those roots that grabbed Gehry as well.

Frank Gehry: That was powerful for me. And I went to Abilene and saw where he was buried and saw the community he lived in, and saw the bedroom he lived in with his other two brothers. It wasn't very big, very modest.

Everything was super, super modest. It was just a lot of things I believed in.

Jeffrey Brown: Washington is a city of monuments and memorials, including Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln. More recently, the Vietnam Memorial opened in the 1980s, FDR in the early '90s, World War II in the 2000s, and the Martin Luther King Memorial in 2011.

And the building continues. A memorial to Native American veterans is being constructed in the shadow of the Capitol, and a World War I memorial is about to be completed not far away.

But the Eisenhower Memorial also opens at a very tense time for the nation, with a very different kind of Republican president, and a focus on the history that statues and memorials purport to honor.

Renee Ater: I think we're in a completely different moment than when we started this memorial. We need to have a pause. We need to take a moment to think about it.

Jeffrey Brown: Brown University visiting professor and historian Renee Ater has studied and written on the role of monuments and memorialization.

Renee Ater: That's important that he is acknowledged. But we also know we have limited space in this city for monument building, and we need to think about who gets to be in those spaces as we proceed.

The monumental sculpture certainly plays into that idea of the great man sculpture. As we start to think about future memorialization efforts, we need to actually more broadly include communities in that discussion about who gets to be in public space, who gets to be represented, and the types of artists that are going to do the representation.

Jeffrey Brown: I asked David Eisenhower about these broader and urgent questions of history and memory.

David Eisenhower: My philosophy is, is that memorialization is something that reveals us at any given time.

And so I think memorialization is a process that is renewed. So, when you dedicate the memorial, I think that you are investing or gambling, in a sense, on the future, that the message that a memorial conveys will have a kind of timeless quality to it.

Jeffrey Brown: The opening of this new memorial then offers another chance to consider the nation's larger legacy.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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