A long-delayed memorial honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed to be built just off the National Mall took a key step forward Wednesday, when a presidentially appointed panel unanimously approved revisions to the Frank Gehry-designed project.
Several hurdles still must be cleared before ground can be broken on the massive memorial, which is more than a dozen years in the planning. But the unanimous decision by the 12-member Eisenhower Memorial Commission to OK the famous architect's design changes, after family members of the two-term president and five-star general, and others, vehemently opposed earlier proposals, has supporters hoping construction could begin early next year.
"I think it's imperative we continue on the course we've set," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. "This has not been an easy task by any means. [But] I don't know any monument to any president that has been as easy task."
Gehry's plans call for additional free-standing statues of Eisenhower, backed by large two bas reliefs in stone or bronze of his military and presidential careers. One relief depicts the general leading the D-Day landings at Normandy, while another shows him as president signing the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
The $142 million plan also calls for 60-foot stainless-steel tapestries with images reflecting the former World War II general and president attached to 80-foot columns.
Earlier designs included a bas relief carved in stone showing Eisenhower in the Oval Office with his hand on a globe, and another of him addressing his troops before D-Day. Gehry added 9-foot-tall bronze sculptures last year after members of Eisenhower's family said the memorial park needed stronger sculptural elements to show the 34th president's achievements more prominently.
The design for the site at Independence and Maryland avenues SW just off the Mall has faced a number of other objections, including concerns about whether the sprawling memorial properly reflects the character of the president that it is celebrating.
Critics of Gehry's designs - most notably the several Eisenhower family members - have complained the artist focused too much on the Eisnehower's youth in rural Kanas.
But the artist told the commission he was careful not to turn the project into a "war memorial" and rather wanted to highlight many facets of the 34th president's life.
Behry added that despite the tweaks and additions, the project is "right on budget."
Rocco C. Siciliano, chairman of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, defended Gehry, saying the artist and commission can't please everyone.
"The family deserves to be heard, but they do not deserve to be obeyed," Siciliano said. "There is no attempt to railroad or walk over outside opinions, particularly from the family."
Gehry denied his revisions were an attempt to appease the family, but rather was a "collaborating" process.
The commission retains the right to reject any future revisions. And the project still must be signed off by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission.
And a House bill drafted by Gehry critic Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to replace the commission is winding its way through the chamber, though the measure would stand little chance of passing in the Senate.