It’s rare that my work is “hot off the presses”—or, in this case, that it features a subject brand new to the world. But that is most certainly the case with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, unveiled on the 17th of September and, needless to say, still as fresh as a daisy.
Over twenty years in the making, the Eisenhower Memorial has faced no small share of hurdles. It wasn’t supposed to take this long from conception to reality. After a review of 44 submissions in 2009, Canadian-American starchitect Frank Gehry (catapulted to global fame for his Guggenheim Museum design in Bilbao, Spain) won the commission for the memorial’s design in 2010, in anticipation of a groundbreaking date in the summer of 2012. Known primarily for his sinuous, deconstructionist, vaguely Daliesque institutional structures (the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis come to mind), this project represented the first commemorative work in the nonagenarian architect’s oeuvre.
But the Eisenhower Memorial Commission confronted considerable objections from Eisenhower’s grandchildren—particularly regarding a tableau depicting Eisenhower as a “barefoot boy” in rural Kansas—prompting the Commission to question the undertaking’s overall dignity (the choice of imagery) and durability (the construction materials), resulting in the shelving of a design that, by the release of a New York Times article in 2013, already had cost approximately $9 million. Susan Eisenhower in particular voiced concern that the design’s depiction of a boy, looking at his future commanding the military during the most devastating war in human history, resulted in an odd and uncomfortable juxtaposition.
After considerable pressure, Gehry and the Commission agreed to relegate the boyhood vignette to the periphery, giving primacy to Eisenhower’s military and diplomatic accomplishments.
And presiding over the sculptural displays is a 60’ x 450’ metal tapestry: a finely wrought mesh installation suspended by massive pillars in front of the Department of Education building.
Subtly transparent during the day, the tapestry’s nighttime illumination reveals a landing scene from Normandy during D-Day. I unfortunately didn’t capture it during my early morning visit, but the cited Stars and Stripes article shows the appearance, which is likely more distinctive and striking than the monument’s daytime appearance. (And that’s an aesthetic judgment that seems questionable to me, since most visitors are likely to see it during the day. Then again, the sweltering DC summers often elicit terrific crowds on the National Mall at night, when the temperatures are more bearable.) My non-expert opinion is that the end result is tasteful but hardly breathtaking: if it weren’t for the massive tapestry and the pillars flanking the perimeter, the Eisenhower Memorial’s scattershot vignettes fail to create a unifying point of interest, and, especially during the day when the tapestry is less visible, the result is just another DC statue. Rather than a monolithic structure of visual prominence like the memorials to Jefferson, Lincoln, or Washington (or even Martin Luther King Junior), the Eisenhower Memorial feels more like a narrative-driven museum installation, akin to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. It’s far less visually remarkable than the average Gehry building.
Regardless of the varied perspectives on Gehry’s tribute to America’s 34th president—many of which are much better equipped to pass judgment than I am—I can at least scrutinize the interesting choice of the location, which in itself bears further scrutiny.
Behind that tapestry is the unloved façade of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education—a modernist building dating from 1961 that previously housed NASA and then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, until the founding of the DOE in 1979. It stands among a number of mammoth structures in Southwest DC (the smallest of DC’s four quadrants) dating from a 20-year period that largely coincides with Urban Renewal—the nationwide effort at slum clearance that precipitated widespread displacement of urban poor (often racial minority) for the construction of civic buildings and plazas that, by and large, had completely fallen out of favor by the 1980s. Adjacent to the DOE building is the gargantuan complex known as L’Enfant Plaza, a federal campus stretching across approximately ten city blocks that includes the Federal Aviation Administration, the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building (Department of Housing and Urban Development), and a variety of other structures generally reflecting a transition from modernism to brutalism. Though a major employment node and the biggest point of convergence of the various WMATA subway lines, L’Enfant Plaza is not a tourist attraction by any great metric, nor does it evoke a great deal of fondness among DC residents. Though some of the oldest structures in this portion of Southwest DC may qualify for protections under the National Register of Historic Places, I’m not aware of any widespread preservationist outcry from the deliberate demotion of the DOE with this new Eisenhower Memorial. Although not quite fronting the National Mall—it’s exactly one block south—this memorial intends to draw tourists to an area that otherwise remains largely ignored.
Whatever people think of the the Eisenhower Memorial, it’s at least something to look at. By the most aesthetically disinterested of viewpoints, the Eisenhower Memorial is an improvement. But it isn’t replacing a sterile plaza from 1965.
The lawn in front of it the DOE building used to be a road. It’s easy to see where the newly placed sod distinguishes itself from the older turf in the photo below.
And it’s easy to see the path of the former right-of-way from this angle:
It’s a clean shot to the US Capitol building. Pivoting 180 degrees, here’s the other view.
It leads right into the mass of buildings that comprise l’Enfant Plaza.
So what happened? Well, the construction of the Eisenhower Memorial required the elimination of a block-long portion of Maryland Avenue SW. It’s plainly visible in the Google Map below, where I’ve outlined it with a dashed line in my usual purple.
What was already a relatively minor four-block segment of Maryland Avenue SW is now two smaller fragments, one of which is only a block long. This Google Street View shows what the segment looked like at the intersection of Maryland Avenue and 6th Street SW, looking eastward toward the Capitol, back in 2016, before the memorial broke ground. It was a contiguous road.
The Eisenhower Memorial required what amounts to a vacation of the right-of-way for a block of Maryland Avenue SW, eliminating its function as a transportation easement and reverting it to a developable parcel. I’ve written about the application of vacation recently in Mountain View, California, where the City vacated a road segment, turning it into a pedestrian corridor fronting a newly developed apartment building; the newly vacated, former ROW is now part of the same parcel as the apartments. Frankly, I’m not sure if the legal term “vacation” would apply in the case of Maryland Avenue SW and the Eisenhower Memorial, since it has not reverted to private ownership; it’s all federal property. But the elimination of the transportation easement would suggest a similar process to a conventional vacation.
As non-controversial as the partial concealment of the DOE façade might have been, I have a suspicion that the vacation of this small segment of Maryland Avenue SW proved more challenging. After all, the road network in DC owes itself almost entirely to the Plan of the City of Washington by Major Pierre L’Enfant, conceived as a grid bisected by grand avenues that offered terminating views at key monuments. Maryland was among these grand avenues, and the US Capitol building is that terminating view. In fact, Maryland Avenue is among the contributing element in the National Register-listed configuration of the plan. Keeping its historic significance in mind, the very selection of the location for Eisenhower Memorial underwent considerable scrutiny; such oversight agencies as the National Capital Planning Commission needed assurance of the exact nature by which this vacation would deflect vehicular traffic, and, more importantly, the aesthetic impact on compromising a portion of the L’Enfant Plan, however small it may seem. My suspicion is that the preservation of the Maryland Avenue SW viewshed was instrumental to the Memorial’s approval; without that clear line of sight to the Capitol, no proposal would ever fly. Retaining the viewshed was, no doubt, a prerequisite to Gehry’s design.
As a slight detour from the Smithsonian Museums that flank the National Mall, the Eisenhower Memorial may struggle to serve as an enduring attraction. Time will only tell if tourists deviate from the path, just as they have if they wish visit the privately managed International Spy Museum, the Museum of the Bible, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, all poised at a similar distance from the iconic Mall. (I’m not really sure many people are aware of that last memorial.) And it may be even more difficult to discern the long-term impact on traffic patterns by removing a segment of road, reducing Maryland Avenue SW to a few inconsequential fragments. (Maryland Avenue NE, radiating out from the Capitol in the opposite direction, is much more prominent and contiguous.) Regardless of the tortuous path from conception to reality, the Eisenhower Memorial stands today as a testament to shifting aesthetic tastes: we seek to preserve all we can of a road network conceived over 200 years ago, while we are happy to hang a massive mesh screen in front of a building constructed just 60 years ago, at the end of the second term of the president that this tapestry is honoring. Who knows what’s in store for the remaining undeveloped patches in Southwest Washington DC, historically the most malleable of the District’s quadrants. Perhaps the front plaza to the adjacent Hubert H. Humphrey Health and Human Services Building (another unloved brutalist structure) will receive a memorial that shrouds its façade. Jimmy Carter, anyone?