Closing The Memorials

Some time ago I mentioned the fabled Washington, D.C. tale about laying off the elevator operator of the Washington Monument.  If funding was cut for the Department of Interior, the tale went, the elevator operator would top the layoff list — the reasoning being that inconvenienced tourists would apply pressure to restore the funding so they could ride in comfort to the top of the towering obelisk at the center of the National Mall.

With the recent partial government shutdown, the bureaucrats apparently went one step farther.  They closed the open memorials along the Washington, D.C. National Mall, including the vast World War II Memorial.  It’s not entirely clear why these open-air memorials would need to be closed; the stated reason was that the National Park Service was worried about the security of the memorials and the safety of visitors without the normal staff there.  So, some apparently essential employees had to erect physical barricades to keep people out who would otherwise be able to walk freely through the memorials, without the assistance of federal employees.

Then, groups of veterans appeared — World War II veterans, and Korean War veterans, and their families.  Elderly men in wheelchairs and using canes, they had traveled far to pay tribute and remember their service to their country, only to be denied entry by the barricades and signs.  After they were initially rebuffed, someone moved the barricades and the veterans poured through, to recall their service and lay the wreaths in honor of their fallen comrades, without any security or safety issues.

It was an embarrassing incident for our federal government, and it showed that the elevator operator theory only works when the federal funding reason for the inconvenience seems plausible.  When open air memorials are unnecessarily barricaded, and aged, stooped veterans wearing their medals and insignia are denied entry to war memorials that were built to honor their service, the elevator operator theory suddenly doesn’t seem like such a good idea, does it?

The Eisenhower Memorial

You can’t build a new memorial in Washington, D.C. without there being some controversy about the concept, the design, and the location.  The Martin Luther King Memorial, which opened recently, has experienced its share of criticism — as has virtually every other addition to the National Mall area in the past 50 years.  Now the Memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower is being dogged by controversy.

Eisenhower clearly was one of the greatest Americans of the last century.  He led the Allied Expeditionary Force that invaded Europe and defeated Nazi Germany.  In that role, Eisenhower showed extraordinary political instincts and the ability to meld, and placate, disparate nationalities and personalities.  He was elected the 34th President, served for two terms, and left office a popular figure.  During the Eisenhower years America was prosperous and at peace, focusing on huge internal improvements like the interstate highway system and social and cultural developments like rock ‘n’ roll and television.  The Cold War with the Soviet Union was underway in earnest, and Eisenhower deftly managed to keep intermittent crises from turning the Cold War into a hot one.  His presidency also saw the federal government taking an increasing civil rights role that culminated in Eisenhower’s decision to send federal troops to ensure the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

How do you memorialize such a figure?  The Eisenhower Memorial designed by architect Frank Gehry contemplates an area in which three large metal tapestries create an interior space.  The tapestries will feature images of Kansas, where Eisenhower was born.  Within the tapestry walls will be green space, passages from three Eisenhower speeches, and three depictions of Eisenhower — as a barefoot boy, as a general, and as president.

Eisenhower’s descendants don’t like the design.  They wonder if the metal will rust, they don’t like the focus on his boyhood rather than his accomplishments, and they want the work on the memorial to be postponed to allow for reassessment of the design.  Other critics call the design “ghastly” and say the memorial fails to really communicate why Eisenhower was such a significant figure — which, they submit, is one of the main reasons for a memorial in the first place.

The opposition to the design caused the National Civic Art Society to hold a contest seeking a more classical design.  The winning entry proposes a memorial arch with depictions of Eisenhower as general and as president along with two fountains.

The National Mall area is like America’s town square.  We all feel a special pride about it, and we all have an opinion about how it should look.  Some people love the classical designs and want only more of the same.  Others urge that we experiment with other styles and approaches.  I’m not sure Americans care a great deal about the design; I think they care more about the concept and the execution.  The Vietnam War Memorial was controversial when it was proposed — depicted as a sad, black gash in the ground — but it is now a must-see for most Americans who visit Washington, D.C.  That memorial, with its somber, sinking feeling and the grim weight of those thousands of individual names, is as impressive and awesome in its own, unique way as the nearby Lincoln Memorial is in its classical fashion.

So, I’m not opposed to the concept of metal tapestries, per se, so long as they are created to withstand rust and the elements.  Instead, I question what is depicted on the tapestries.  Eisenhower certainly was shaped, in some part, by his Kansas childhood, but there was much, much more to his life.  Bucolic scenes of rolling countryside don’t communicate anything about the man, his beliefs, and his achievements — and indeed seem to distract from them.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Today America got its first close-up look at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Although the Memorial won’t be formally dedicated until this weekend, it was opened to the public today.

The Memorial features a 30-foot tall statue of a standing Dr. King hewn from granite, as well as a wall with quotations, a bookstore, and dozens of cherry trees.  The Memorial is in a beautiful location adjacent to the Tidal Basin and about halfway between the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.  Fittingly, it is in close proximity to the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. King gave the “I have a dream” speech — arguably the most significant speech given by an American since Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

I think it is wonderful that a memorial to Dr. King has been included on the National Mall.  King was a profoundly influential figure whose words have inspired generations of Americans of all races and creeds.  He not only is the first person of color to be recognized on the National Mall, but also the first non-President.  Both of those firsts are long overdue.