The 34th American President & WWII hero is about to get a long awaited memorial in DC.
Next year is the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two. Even with the historical amnesia that besets much of contemporary America, the events and personalities of that war still resonate relatively clearly in our national consciousness. The WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. is one of the most visited sites on the National Mall.
There’s an increasing diversity of style in the places we set aside to nurture our communal memory. There’s a great deal of difference, for example, between the classical lines of the Lincoln Memorial and the stark minimalism of the nearby Vietnam Memorial. The artistic vision behind each reveals the divergent ways we seek to combine art and memory into something that preserves our sense of who we are.
But like every kind of art, commemoration can provoke controversy. You’ll remember a few years ago when the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opened it had its share of critics, largely because of the form of its massive central statue. Now, elsewhere in the nation’s capital a memorial is taking shape that has had critics and controversy enough to delay it for years. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the architect of the Allied victory in the European theater of WWII and 34th President of the United States is getting his own memorial.
In 2009 it was announced that world-renowned architect Frank Gehry had been chosen as the designer of the memorial. Gehry then worked with avant-garde theater artist and Waco native Robert Wilson, and their design was — to put it mildly — far from classical. The most distinguishing feature was a series of screens made from steel mesh, each suspended between enormous columns. The tableau called to mind drive-ins of the 1950s, and the largest of the screens, nearly a block long, would carry an image of a wintery Kansas landscape, evoking Ike’s boyhood home.
If you’re thinking that Dwight Eisenhower and “avant-garde” might not combine so well, you wouldn’t be alone. An organization called the National Civic Art Society led the charge against the design, lobbying for something more traditional. Controversy ensued, Ike’s granddaughters got involved, and the whole thing ground to a halt before former Secretary of State James Baker stepped in to broker a compromise. The six 80-foot columns are still in place, and still holding a fascinating steel threaded tapestry, but now one that portrays the beaches of Normandy—the stage for the D-Day invasion.
Two years ago this month officials finally held the ground-breaking ceremony and work began on a four-acre site on Independence Avenue. In addition to the screens, the memorial will also feature bronze statues of Eisenhower and green space.
Victoria Tigwell, the deputy executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, says “I hope people will come and eat lunch, but then walk into the reflective area and think about what his contributions mean for us today.” The art of the memorial will be what allows that contemplation to happen.
The opening date for the Memorial is set for next May 8, the 75th anniversary of VE Day.