Now, their father, John Eisenhower, age 90, has added his voice in a letter to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. It is a quite reasonable letter, with at least one phrase that might have come from a planning or architecture school charette: “To my mind, though it is creative, the scope and scale of it is too extravagant and it attempts to do too much. On the one hand it presumes a great deal of prior knowledge of history on the part of the average viewer. On the other, it tries to tell multiple stories. In my opinion, that is best left to museums.”
Debates about such memorials have frequently drawn attention to public cultural divides. This one has been quite bitter, with modernists defending Gehry because of its author’s reputation but despite the actual design and classical architecture conservatives attacking it and any non traditional scheme.
John Eisenhower wants the basic traditional layout of a memorial for his father. In his letter he writes that “taxpayers and donors alike will be better served with an Eisenhower Square that is a green open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations from his most important sayings.”
The controversy is in contrast to the celebration that surrounded the opening this fall of the FDR Four Freedoms memorial on Roosevelt Island in New York. The story is familiar: how the last design of Louis Kahn was completed just before he died in 1974 but stayed unbuilt until recently, when it was carried out by the firm of Mitchell/Giurgula. The four acre park opened this fall with leading members of the New York and national Democratic party establishment like Bill Clinton and the Govs. Cuomo, pere et fils, in attendance.
John Eisenhower would probably be happy with something like the Four Freedoms park for his father. Kahn is regarded as a master of modernism, but the design of the Four Freedoms memorial is quite traditional. It comes close to the green space, statue and quotations formula. Kahn described the memorial as “a room and a garden.” It is a European park, really, an allee of trees protected by stone walls and a rip rap (protective barrier) of boulders at water’s edge. At the point of the island rise walls of granite and sort of box housing a metal bust of FDR by sculptor Jo Davidson. Nearby is a single upright stone panel bearing words from the 1941 speech that enunciated the Four Freedoms.
The Four Freedoms are no longer well known, so the place serves the purpose of reminding the public of their ideals. The Four Freedoms— freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear---were the stated ideals on which the U.S. fought World War II and the basis for FDR’s international ideals. Effectively a translation of the New Deal into global foreign policy, they were also the principles behind the United Nations, whose headquarters is framed in the view south of the new park.
Immediately after the end of World War II, the Four Freedoms became caught up in the reaction in the U.S. against international involvement. Isolationists and right wing Republicans, already heading toward McCarthyism and the Red Hunt, derided such thinking as “globaloney.” The perspective of time has also shown a certain naiveté about the internal contradictions of the Four Freedoms—what happens, say, when freedom of religion conflicts with freedom of the press or freedom from want? The record of the UN is achieving the Four Freedoms is to put it kindly, mixed.
But visitors to the new park won’t pay much attention to all that. Over the long run, the best memorials tend to function for recreation as much as commemoration—like such holidays as Memorial day and Labor Day. With more development set for Roosevelt Island, notably a campus of Cornell University, more and more people are likely to find their way to the grass and the views and never think about the Freedoms.
Like Ike, FDR had ideas about an appropriate memorial. He told Justice Felix Frankfurter that “if there is a memorial to me, I should like it to consist of a block the size of this desk.” His request was heeded. Not far from the Commerce Building on the Mall and rarely noted by visitors is a marble block the size of a desk. It is the official Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
There is of course a much more prominent and more visited FDR Memorial, opened in 1997 in Washington. If the Four Freedoms park is built around a room, the Washington park is a warren of rooms, a rambling tenement of plaques and statues, with areas dedicated to each term and all sorts of constituencies placated. Designed by Lawrence Halprin, it is built around a series of water features whose schemes are supposed to symbolize aspects of FDR’s tenure in office. Most visitors seem likely to miss this meaning. They are also likely to glaze over at the words inscribed on the walls, which read like a Democratic party platform. Even a ward boss couldn’t make his way through them.
What of the other presidential monuments? Lincoln and Jefferson are well known. But Teddy Roosevelt, their companion on Mt. Rushmore, instead of a marble temple is celebrated with a grove of trees on an island in the Potomac. LBJ, whose reputation lagged until recently, gets only a few stones imported from Texas and a few trees planted in a spot few people visit. (A revival of LBJ’s reputation began recently, with such books as Robert Caro’s biography.) No one to my knowledge has suggested that JFK needs any more memorial than the eloquently mute eternal flame on his grave.
Memorials are not built to please their subjects—or even their subjects’s offspring. They are there to remind and inspire us and teach us and our children moral and historical lessons.