Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial Finally Sees the Light

Following a 21-year saga beset by bureaucratic and financial woes, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial opens in Washington, DC, bringing his political and military accomplishments to the fore.

All images courtesy of Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission

After facing controversy for more than two decades, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, has finally opened to the public. Congress first authorized a design competition in 1999 for a memorial to the nation’s 34th president, who helped lead the D-Day invasion, defeat the Nazis, and bring stability to the U.S. during his two terms in office from 1953–61. Frank Gehry’s unorthodox proposal, which depicted a young Eisenhower gazing at images representing his career milestones, quickly garnered criticism when it was selected as the winner one decade later. Controversy mired the project at every stage—it was subject to congressional hearings, political squabbles, several rounds of design tweaks, government defunding, and even opposition from Eisenhower’s family.

But that’s all in the past. The memorial’s completion, which once was a holy grail for Gehry, feels like a triumph. Set slightly above street level in an open-air plaza near the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the memorial features two stacked pink limestone slabs that backdrop tableaux of heroic-size bronze figurative sculptures, designed in collaboration with Russian artist Sergey Eylanbekov, that highlight major milestones of Ike’s career. On one, General Eisenhower addresses a group of troops before D-Day; the other sees President Eisenhower surrounded by advisers in the Oval Office. Nearby, a teenaged Ike stares longingly at the two vignettes, signifying his humble origins as a kid from Kansas while making a poignant statement about hope and the American dream. 

“It was important that we represent [Eisenhower], in both cases, surrounded by his team and advisers,” Frank Gehry told Architectural Digest. “Ike was not a chest-pounder. He was a gracious leader who knew how to bring people together. He told his family that he never wanted to be put on a pedestal or put on a horse, so we wanted to show him with people.” Backdropping the scene is a 60-foot-tall, 450-foot-wide stainless steel tapestry that renders the cliffs of Normandy during peacetime based on one of Gehry’s sketches. He enlisted the Los Angeles–based artist Tomas Osinski, who “invented a machine to make the tapestry and the software to run it,” continues Gehry. “Throughout the various iterations, we never wanted this to feel computerized. We worked very hard to keep the handmade quality.” 

As Phillip Kennicott writes for the Washington Post, the new memorial “is unlike any other memorial in Washington, or the world.” Gehry’s design forgoes the grand, sweeping gestures of other presidential memorials—think George Washington’s towering white obelisk or Abraham Lincoln’s giant looming statue—and creates an oasis of greenery in an area known for rigid bureaucratic buildings. It also comes alive at night; the backlit statues create an almost theatrical ambiance set against the limestone bas-reliefs, and Osinski’s tapestry emanates a mesmerizing glow. 

Even though monuments—especially those honoring powerful white men—are currently being torn down across the country, Gehry’s memorial creates a human-scale space to reflect on less fractious times, past and future. Eisenhower was no crusader on race relations, but he made major strides toward desegregation before the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1960s. “He united a fractious and frightened America,” Susan Eisenhower, one of his granddaughters, said in a recent interview. “This sort of calming steadiness that he represented is something that’s also worth reflecting on and reminding ourselves of.”

A formal dedication for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial will occur on Thursday, Sept. 17, and will be livestreamed. It officially opens to the public the following day.

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