By MARSHA MERCER
One of the surprising things about the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, which was formally dedicated Thursday, is that it exists at all.
In our time, many white American men once revered and honored by their country have been toppled – literally or figuratively – from their perches of prominence.
The reputations of many presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson come to mind – have been tarnished.
And yet, the new Eisenhower memorial makes admiration not only possible but likely, even in 2020.
Renowned architect Frank Gehry elevates Eisenhower by focusing on his personal story, his ideals, his integrity and his lifetime of service to country.
The 34th president and five-star general is portrayed in the four-acre space at 540 Independence Ave., SW, in three separate, sculptural vignettes representing different phases of his life – boyhood, the military and the presidency.
But the memorial also includes two gigantic cylindrical pillars that look like smokestacks and a 450-foot-wide, 8-story-tall metal “tapestry” of woven stainless steel whose main purpose seems to blur the ugly federal office building right behind it. For that, the location is to blame.
The memorial sits in a new urban park across Independence Avenue from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building. That modernist building, completed in 1961, is so charmless it was originally known as Federal Building #6.
The National Mall is nearly full, and this location does offer a view of the Capitol, where President Eisenhower respected and worked with Republicans and Democrats. It’s near buildings that house federal departments with links to his presidency. In time, when the trees grow, the location may feel less odd.
Creating a memorial to the man who led the troops that saved the world from Nazism and was twice elected president might seem straight-forward, but the process was mired in controversies that lasted far longer than World War II.
Congress authorized the Eisenhower memorial in 1999 and chose Gehry’s design a decade later. But the Eisenhower family was dead-set against having a statue of Eisenhower as a boy as the centerpiece as well as three huge, metal scrims.
After congressional hearings and years of negotiations, the family came around when Gehry moved the boyhood statue to the side, dropped two of the scrims and changed what’s shown on the remaining one.
Instead of Kansas, it’s Gehry’s own sketch of the Pointe du Hoc cliffs at Normandy, France, in peacetime. Army Rangers scaled the cliffs under German fire on D-Day, the air, land and sea invasion that changed the course of World War II and history.
The bronze statues depict Eisenhower first as a boy in Abilene, Kansas, dreaming of his future, then as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, boosting the morale of six paratroopers on the eve of D-Day.
Finally, he’s shown as president with three aides in the Oval Office. Seeing the office takes a bit of imagination, but the free audio tour, part of the E-memorial available on personal electronic devices, provides context.
The three aides are symbolic of the competing influences of domestic progress and strength abroad. Closest to Eisenhower is a Black man, carrying a briefcase. He symbolizes the work Eisenhower did to advance civil rights, the audio tour explains.
In 1957, he sent 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne to protect nine Black students as they integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Etched into the reverse side of huge granite blocks behind the sculptures are excerpts from Eisenhower’s most famous speeches.
“I’m quite overwhelmed by it,” granddaughter Susan Eisenhower told CBS News as she toured the memorial for the first time this week. “I’m really thrilled.”
But the $150 million memorial has received mixed reviews. “Monumentally Mediocre,” pronounced The Wall Street Journal.
The audience for the Eisenhower memorial is not art critics, of course. The main audience is children in grades K-12, who may be inspired to dream of greatness, as well as tourists and office-workers.
They are likely to visit the memorial in the daytime, but the better views are at night, when the sketch of the cliffs is illuminated.
I think children and their families will be grateful the Eisenhower memorial exists.
©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.