Monday, April 2, 2012

Eisenhower Memorial: In the Guts of the Living


Sometimes I start certain conversations, like I am today, with this disclaimer:

“You know, I do have a life -- but last night I saw something on CSPAN3 … “

What I saw was a hearing held by the House Natural Resources subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands on March 20, 2012, and the topic was a proposed memorial to President Eisenhower to be built on the Capitol Mall.

Most of the ingredients of a really good hearing immediately emerged. First, the witnesses for the agencies, the National Park Service and the General Services Administration, were defensive and overly reliant on the lawyerly text in front of them. Second, the ranking member of the committee, when given the opportunity to speak by the Chairman, threw it right back, saying the committee was really not competent to get in the way of a family dispute. Third, the first witness, Susan Eisenhower, daughter of the President’s son, John, was brutal, blunt and uncompromising – think Mike Tyson, top of his game, first round. Two members of the public, representing organizations that spend nearly all of their time thinking about monuments and memorials, were by turns, darkly conspiratorial and broadly clownish. The architect of the project was not there, a distant presence, the empty chair of the debate, though the hearing packet, which I rushed to discover on-line, contained a letter from him expressing his willingness to work with the family.

The issue is that the Eisenhower granddaughters – Susan, Mary Jean and Anne – and more recently, grandson David, have asked the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to halt the design process and start over. David, a member serving on the Commission through December of last year, came to this position more recently and explained an additional reason for resigning earlier in a letter released to the commission at the hearing by the family lead, Susan.

Proposed as four acres just off the Mall, across the street from the Air and Space Museum, it is designed by Frank Gehry of the Bilbao Museum, the LA Symphony and the smashed guitar Experience Music Project at the Seattle Center.

Additional testimony came from two non-profit organizations dedicated to the fostering of traditional public art, traditional meaning classical art, meaning further an adherence to the descriptions of Pierre L'Enfant and the McMillan Commission which resurrected L'Enfant's views in the early years of the 20th Century.  We'll get to that in a moment. 

The National Civic Art Society describes itself as 'in the vanguard of a traditional artist counterculture emerging as the indispensable alternative to a post-modern, elitist culture that has reduced its works of 'art' to a dependence on rarified discourse imcomprehensible to ordinary people." 

From that description, you can guess accurately that the NCAS savaged the Geary design and further, cast doubts on the integrity of the process, indicating the presence of a conspiracy to give Gehry and his collaborators the edge. 

The other organization featured in opposition at the hearings is the National Monuments Foundation, an invention of an Atlanta traditionalist from an old Atlanta family named Rodney Mims Cook, Jr.  He has, among other things, constructed a Roman arch much like the Arc de Triumph, though smaller, in Atlanta and rents it out for weddings and other events.  He operates a small museum there as well that shows classical interiors and is a friend of the Prince of Wales who shares Cook's passion for classical architecture and a disdain for the rest.

Cook ran an alternative design competition for the Eisenhower Monument and offered one of his own designs.  And it won!  His design is a monument he found more appropriate, less costly and taking up less space.  His testimony describes his concept:

"The rules of classicism are hierarchical.  Precedent matters and our research of General Eisenhower called for a martial design.  We studied some of the greatest military leaders in history and the tradition for the greatest of them was a triumphal column.  The tallest ever supports Lord Nelson, in central London, which is 170 feet.  Nelson saved England.  Eisenhower saved England and Europe and hierarchy calls for a taller column for the General.  At 178 feet, it would have been the tallest commemorative column on Earth.  Our design placed him in his preferred soldier's D-Day uniform.  The column is surrounded by 8 bands representing the years of his presidency.  The plaza surrounding the column base is circular and contains 34 stars corresponding to his being the 34th president.  There are five allegorical statures atop the fountains surrounding this circular plaza representing Family, Education, Progress, War and Peace. 

If the process is reopened, Cook pledged not to compete so that any perception of conflict of interest would be entirely swept away. 

Why does a monument to this great man have to come to this?  Why do the ugly assertions of personal motives have to come flying out of these marginal non-profit organizations?  Why does the Eisenhower Memorial Commission have to assert that its vote was unanimous, representing Commission Senator Daniel Inouye, the only member of Congress who actually fought for the general?  Why does the commission have to make an announcement reconfirming that there is 'NO BAREFOOT BOY SCULPTURE in the memorial?  Why does the New York Times have to weigh in and assure us that the memorial is okay?  And why is right wing Congressman Daniel Issa of San Diego investigating?

National Park Service
There are answers to most of these questions and not all of them go to the corrosive culture of Washington, DC in 2012.  Rather, they go to the corrosive culture in Washington, DC in 1791 when the Mall was conceived as the soul of the new Capitol by Pierre L'Enfant and when George Washington fired him.  Answers can be found in the Mall Thomas Jefferson wanted and didn't get and to the explosion of a steamship that took the life of America's first real landscape architect who drowned with the future of the Mall in his young hands.  Answers also exist in one of the most amazing resurrections in the entire American story -- a proud, controlling military man thrown out, unpaid. People forget him, now he is buried in his farmer friend's field, then elevated to the highest crest of the great city, a president eulogizing him. 

All of this is the struggle for the look and feel of the Washington, DC brand and it's a long way from over. 

L'Enfant was fired because he was plainly insubordinate, refusing to provide designs to the District Columbia Commissioners appointed by George Washington.  He also told the commissioners that the design for the Capitol was in his head and was going to stay there so that it wouldn't have to be shared with them.  With Washington's full support, they fired him in 1792. 

National Park Service
This was good news to Thomas Jefferson.  He didn't like the work L'Enfant was producing.  He didn't like the great distance between Congress and the President's House.  He disliked L'Enfant's eurocentric street design and wanted a simpler, more human-scale city grid.  Jefferson saw the L'Enfant Mall as a military thing, a parade ground whose vastness needed to be softened with gardens, trees and natural plantings.  These disputes in the earliest days informed the Mall battles to come. 


National Parks Service
In the district's first century, no one could really understand just how powerful the building frustration of inaction at the Mall was becoming.  First, the republic had no money.  Then it was rebuilding the buildings overrun and burned by the British in 1814, then the republic was stumbling into the civil war.  In the Mall, along with the slave pens, the grazing cattle and the malarial soup of Tiber Creek was a powerful symbol of this failure, the unfinished Washington Monument, forty years from groundbreaking to completion in 1884.

Library of Congress
Certainly, some things were happening.  The Washington Canal, completed in 1819, increased the ability to bring construction materials where they were needed and reduced some of the effects of Tiber Creek.  In 1823 a botanical garden took shape at the foot of Capitol Hill and a surprise gift from Englishman James Smithson provided the need to plan for the Mall's first major structure, in 1848, intended to become a national university or a center of scientific study, the Smithsonian Institution. 
National Park Service
An American architect, Robert Mills, was selected to design the building and landscape the grounds around it.  As he went to work, he kept seeking a context for his building and landscaping plan.  He kept coming back to an intersection of lines in the original L'Enfant design, the line that marched from the center of the Capitol Building down the middle of the Mall to where it intersected with a line from the center of the President's House.  L'Enfant had marked it with a notation --'Monument A.'  It is there Mills proposed the design of the Washington Monument, although it had a weird crew cut on top and, from today's point of view, a completely unnecessary temple at the bottom. 

Mills' work revealed how badly the Mall needed direction and President Fillmore asked Andrew Jackson Downing to take on the development of a plan.  Downing was one of the first American landscape architects and staked out the other end of the design spectrum from L'Enfant's geometric parade ground.  Downing's partner was none other than the architect Calvert Vaux (rhymes with box), who, with Frederic Law Olmsted, would go on to design Central Park.

Downing's Mall
National Park Service
Downing and Vaux were destined to drown.  Vaux's death was at the end of his career and, unfortunately, Downing would drown at the beginning of his.  In the summer of 1852, Downing was on board a steamboat which caught fire and sank in the Hudson River, killing 50 people.

Before his death, Downing's plan would have created something very much like Central Park.  He would have kept the canal, crossing it with a suspension bridge.  An impressive arch would have crossed Pennsylvania Avenue and been the main entrance to the Mall.  He proposed lakes around the botanical gardens, a stand of evergreens that would keep color in the Mall during winter and he would have assembled and displayed a great collection of America's trees. 

Downing was a believer in what would come to be known as the 'City Beautiful Movement,' the idea that design of natural spaces had a profound influence on the human spirit and led to a more ethical and productive life. 
Smithsonian
All that's left of Downing's considerable talent in Washington, DC is a single copy of his plan, rescued by the remarkable people at the Smithsonian, and an urn on the Smithsonian grounds, designed and placed there by Vaux, with this inscription from Downing's writing:

"The taste of an individual, as well as that of a nation, will be in direct proportion to the profound sensibility with which he perceives the beautiful in national scenery.  Open wide, therefore, the doors of your libraries and picture galleries all ye true republicans!  Build halls where knowledge shall be freely diffused among men, and not shut up with the narrow walls of narrower institutions.  Plant spacious parks in your cities, and unclose their gates as wide as the gates of morning to the whole people."

Washington's Monument in 1855
Library of Congress
Congress refused to fund the entire project, providing money only for the space around the Smithsonian.  Without the substantial presence of Downing to push his ideas through and in the chaos of the coming war, the Mall remained largely static. 

The Chicago World's Fair was the beginning of L'Enfant's resurrection.  After his dismissal, he rattled around Washington for years trying to get paid for and justify his work.  He died in 1825 on a friend's Maryland farm, his death unnoticed and, except for a few who still had to contend with the underlying street system he had put in place, unremembered. 

The Chicago fair changed design sensitivities across America and created a focus on Europe and its design consciousness, giving new cachet to the geometric precision of L'Enfant.  It also gave rise to what Downing was thinking about, the 'City Beautiful' movement.  It had a different emphasis than Downing thought of fifty years previous.  Well-designed places would now ease the strains of overcrowded tenements and slums and help move poor and immigrant people into the mainstream of American life  -- in short, something we would later call urban renewal. 

Following the design triumph in Chicago was the centennial celebration of the government moving into its new home in Washington, DC in 1800.  Senator Joseph McMillan of Michigan formed a sub-committee of the District of Columbia Committee called the Parks Committee and brought together a group of people engaged in the Chicago World's Fair led by Daniel Burnham, its principal builder and joined by Frederick Law Olmsted who had landscaped the Capitol grounds. 

Their report, captured the frustration of a Mall going nowhere.  And L'Enfant would be the idea to kick start it.  'The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia,' while not focused exclusively on the Mall, was a next step in L'Enfant resurrection.  The report reversed Downing's direction, the Central Park model, and substituted the more formal L'Enfant version. 

L'Enfant's Bench in Arlington Cemetery
The next step for L'Enfant was his actual resurrection.  After all of the praise heaped on his 're-discovered' plan, he was removed from the farm field in Maryland, his remains transported to the Capitol Rotunda where it lay in state for several hours, and then to a hill in Arlington Cemetery near a marble bench in what was, before the Civil War, Robert E.  Lee's home.  Finally, the Mall had its hero and motive force. 

Vigorous contention is the central cultural fact of the Mall.  Recently, in what we can call the modern era of memorials on the Mall, those started or finished after World War II, there has been plenty to contend with. 

In addition to a host of museums, there are seven major memorials in the post war era.  First, Jefferson, finished in 1947.  Then the Vietnam Veterans groundbreaking thirty years ago, March 26, 1982.  The Korean War Memorial, Franklin Roosevelt, the World War II Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial and now Eisenhower. 

National Park Service
The wide open spaces of the Mall drive larger memorials than would have existed under the Jefferson/Downing concepts and the size of the designs are certainly an issue with Eisenhower.   The largest is Jefferson, at 19 acres, the smallest is the Korean War Memorial, 2.2 acres.  In between are World War II and Roosevelt, about 7.5 acres each, MLK at 4 and Vietnam at 3.  Lincoln, completed in the twenties, is 107 acres.

The narrative of these monuments means everything and can no longer benefit from the subject's contemporary thinking, though ironically, each narrative must answer tomorrow's events as clearly as yesterday's.  As Auden wrote about Yeats: 

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities

And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,

To find his happiness in another kind of wood

And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.

The words of a dead man

Are modified in the guts of the living. 

National Park Serevice
Is the scale of the narrative right?  My favorite, of course, is Lincoln's Memorial.  However, I have come to like the FDR Memorial more and more, though many call it trivial, because it represents how the attitude of today pushes back into the history.  The monument has a little dog, Fala, men in a breadline, a farmer couple beaten down by  events, a man listening to a radio, Eleanor Roosevelt standing in a doorway.  Today's politics make a clean history harder -- Roosevelt can't smoke cigarettes, Mrs.  Roosevelt's fox fur collar is gone and the President must sit in a wheelchair though he avoided that image all his post-polio life.  It even allows a clear and pointed rebuke, the President quoted in stone what everyone knows he failed to do in the western United States after Pearl Harbor:

"We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens, whatever their background." 

Part of the issue in the Eisenhower design is whether the narrative has a scale too understated, whether the barefoot boy, even if he has shoes on, is simply too small a representation.  More important, in Susan Eisenhower's best criticism, does the narrative lead us to the accomplishment or is the accomplishment our starting place?  There is no log cabin, she would probably say, in the Lincoln Memorial. 

Eisenhower also surfaces the question of who should speak for the person?  Is the family's franchise such that they are owed more than respect?  Or, does the subject of the memorial 'belong to the ages,' as Stanton said of Lincoln?

In part of the communications frenzy after the contentious hearing, The Eisenhower Memorial Commission comes down clearly with Stanton:

"Frank Gehry has been a loyal soldier in our effort," the commissioners wrote.  "We confirm our selection of him, confirm our enthusiastic endorsement of his design concept, and express our regret and sadness at the tone and nature of the selected comments that have been made on Mr.  Gehry's design for the memorial."

Eisenhower Memorial Commission

National Civic Art Society

Lovely piece on the restoration of Downing's plan

Blog about Washington, DC in its early days


The Memorial Hearing. Well worth watching.

2 comments:

  1. As in past projects,Gehry's offers of compromise/cooperation is probably disingenuous. Further public comments from Ms Eisenhower revealed that cordial conversations have taken place but no movement from either Gehry or the Commission has appeared. Stubborn arrogance and continuing disrespect seem to be the main strategies of Gehry supporters. Hence,I suspect, "the Mike Tyson" approach that probably resulted from disrespect and frustation

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  2. Mr.Royer,

    The depth of your acquaintance with the many historical strains and shifting formalist winds that have impacted the Plan for the National Capital is impressive, if your conclusions and interpretations of these are not entirely correct.
    The central issue in any work (whether it be a Presidential Memorial, a Department Store, or a housing block) that might be built on the identified undisputedly urban, four-acre Memorial Site is this:

    How proper an urbanistic response do we have before us? Any intervention on
    this site must define and reenforce the clean urban lines of Independence and
    Maryland Avenues -- and in doing so also lend some very badly needed definition
    to the Mall space itself.
    Also, the identified Site, as part of the ravaged SW Quadrant of the City (once a
    lively, small-scaled, mixed use district providing an engaging frame to the Mall
    along its southern boundary now a dispiritingly inert and disjointed precinct of
    single-use office blocks) must be infused (beyond any indulgence in empty-
    headed 'formal' conceits (be these 'Classical', or 'Abstract', or anything else) with
    the sort of real functional urbanity which the City Plan -- or the "existing land-
    uses", to put it in historically neutral bureaucratic language, require.

    At any rate, I found your 'dissection' of the character of what has transpired to date amusing and interesting.

    You are quite right, by the way, to question the objectivity of the National Civic Art Society's Counterproposals Competition. Our informed and superbly crafted entry met with a most curious 'Third Place' Award therein, among a field, solidly in Classical
    garb, yes, but every bit as inept, disengaged from contextual reality and lacking in functional integrity as the challenged proposal by Mr.Gehry.

    For your education, I do invite you to review our singular Plan for this site, and to see how it entirely challenges the tired tropes and artificially narrow 'turf' which have characterized the most tightly-controlled debate on this topic to date.

    Best.

    Francisco Ruiz, Architect

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