Architect Frank Gehry, who had been chosen to design the memorial in 2009, had become a lightning rod, mocked by conservative columnists as a self-aggrandizing architectural superstar and accused by others of not understanding the legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Gehry’s design, with innovative metal tapestries depicting Eisenhower’s boyhood home of Abilene, Kan., had been compared to communist pageantry, billboards and, most stinging of all, the fences that surrounded the death camps of Adolf Hitler.
So, members of the commission met to decide what they thought they had decided in 2009: whether they stood behind Gehry and his vision, or whether plans for the Eisenhower Memorial would fall prey to the delays and acrimony that have afflicted the creation of so many Washington landmarks in the past century. Those who were there agree that it was the words of Inouye, an 87-year-old senator who is a veteran not only of the Second World War, but of the Monument Wars, that decided the day.
To some, it seemed an unlikely fit, Gehry designing a memorial honoring Ike, but that impression was always based on two misunderstandings. There is a vulgar idea that Gehry is all about flamboyant buildings, radical structures acclaimed by critics but derided by common sense. The popular perception of Ike is no more accurate. Over the decades, historians’ admiration for Eisenhower has grown with mostly bipartisan fervor, though it has yet to supplant the more widely held view of the man: a stellar general with the common touch, and a president who let the 1950s slide by with dull, genial detachment.
Gehry, however, isn’t driven just by inspiration. His office in Los Angeles is a laboratory for technical innovation. People who have worked closely with him describe an architect who listens and responds, a relationship between client and creator that can reach almost psychoanalytic levels of engagement. The architect himself stresses his punctiliousness about budgets and deadlines.
And Eisenhower was no mere grandpa figure, but a deeply engaged and sometimes ruthless politician whose legacy includes the interstate highway system, advances in civil rights and a long list of potential Cold War-era disasters, including war quietly, cautiously and expertly averted.
It’s not clear if Gehry was interested first in the challenge of building a memorial or in the legacy of Ike. But in 2008, soon after a member of his office brought to his attention a competition being held in Washington for a major new memorial, Gehry began to fall into deep admiration of Eisenhower.