Nine full-time, taxpayer-funded employees and a board of aging political leaders have spent the better part of a decade planning the memorial to President Eisenhower, but the National Capital Planning Commission rejected their proposal nearly two weeks ago.
Other national memorial planners held open design competitions, but the EMC quickly settled on Frank Gehry -- the distinctive, modernist designer of Los Angeles' theme park-esque Walt Disney Concert Hall and an old associate of commission Chairman Rocco Siciliano.
Gehry's Eisenhower memorial design featured 80-foot-tall pillars and 500-foot tapestries, intended to honor the Kansan who led Allied forces to victory in World War II and preceded John F. Kennedy in the White House. Groundbreaking was originally scheduled for two years ago on the site near the U.S. Capitol.
But Gehry's design sparked intense opposition from surviving Eisenhower family members and other critics, throwing the project seriously behind schedule.
Then came the NCPC, a bipartisan task force charged with maintaining the national capital area's aesthetic character, saying Gehry's massive objects obstructed important views.
“The NCPC just pulled the plug on Gehry's design,” said Bruce Cole, who was already a vocal critic of the Gehry design when President Obama appointed him to the Eisenhower commission last year.
There had been prior warning signs that the project was coming off the rails. Earlier this year, the commission requested more than $50 million from Congress. But only $1 million was approved -- even though House and Senate appropriators serve on the 12-member commission.
It didn't help with either Congress or the NCPC that the commission jumped the gun by readying the design for construction long before getting even preliminary approval.
Even 95 percent of the construction drawings, which tell laborers exactly how to construct it, had been prepared when the NCPC issued its decision, which was supposed to be based on preliminary concepts.
Federal EMC funds have been spent to hire a former top Obama administration official to persuade the federal planning board to drop its opposition.
Oversight of the commission is hobbled by the fact that its governing board is made up primarily of prominent politicians who have more pressing concerns.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, the commissioners who serve on congressional appropriations committees, declined to comment. Reed hasn't attended a commission meeting in years.
The board chairman is a nonagenarian former aide in the Eisenhower White House who is too “unwell” to participate in its daily operations — and the U.S. senator who originally spearheaded the project is dead.
As for the staff, it has contracted out virtually all major functions and even ceded contract management duties to another federal agency. Its executive director did not speak at the NCPC meeting.
All this has left EMC something of a piece of jetsam in a sea of government spending: an orphan too obscure to catch the attention of auditors but too small and dysfunctional to get anything done.
In the meantime, the commission is simply burning through the remainder of the $64 million it’s been appropriated since 2009. The monument’s projected final cost is about $150 million, but every year of delay will add at least $6 million.
The chairman of the House subcommittee in charge of public space, Utah Republican Rob Bishop, had warned that Congress was concerned that the EMC had ignored widespread criticism of the Gehry design, instead ceding control to an architect who seemed reluctant to compromise on his artistic vision.
“For them to say all the work is done, that was taking a huge risk by them that is not typical,” Bishop told the Washington Examiner, referring to the construction documents. “It will require some major changes in the basic direction of what he’s trying to do.”
A spokeswoman for Siciliano said he was unavailable for comment because “he’s 92 years old and just not well.”
Asked who leads the project in Siciliano's absence, the spokeswoman said “the staff has always managed it since it was created.”
The spokeswoman added that “I don’t know that he cares to discuss [the broader vision] with anyone.”
Carl Reddel, the retired Air Force general who serves as the commission's executive director, is paid $156,000 annually while his deputy, Victoria Tigwell, earns $136,000.
Tigwell refused to speak to a reporter, relying instead upon a paid public relations firm headed by Chris Cimko.
Cimko referred all questions about the commission's spending, including for development of a website and iPhone app, to the General Services Administration. A GSA spokesman did not respond to a request for information.
The commission must rely on taxpayer funding largely because Eisenhower’s descendants are among those who believe Gehry's design is the antithesis of what they view as the former president's trademark modesty. Without support of the family, wealthy donors in Eisenhower circles are gone, too.
The commission spent $1.2 million paying a professional fundraising firm through 2012, but had received only $448,000 in contributions as of last month.
“Since the initial phase, questions were raised regarding the Memorial design. This caused concern with several prospects and potential donors,” the fundraisers wrote.
John Eisenhower, the president's son, wrote to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who sponsored the law that authorized a memorial in 1999, saying “taxpayers and donors alike will be better served with an Eisenhower Square that is a green open space with a simple statue.”
Commission staff have shrugged off the reduction in funding by Congress, saying that they can live with a $1 million yearly budget.
They had requested $2 million for staff operations. Last year they spent $1.6 million for that purpose.
Gehry used some of the at least $15 million in federal funding disbursed under the architecture contract to hire the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates. The firm deployed Gregory Craig, President Obama's first White House counsel, to help secure approval from the NCPC, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit that has been critical of the Gehry design.
In an email to the Examiner, Cimko said that "it is too early to speculate on what specific changes might be made to the design or their impact on the budget that could result from NCPC’s direction.
"Some of the commissioner comments did offer specifics. We will meet with NCPC staff to understand which of those suggestions they believe need to be incorporated into any changes."
Even as the Gehry design seems increasingly unlikely to be built, staff has been stubbornly dismissive of critics, nearly all of whom agree that Eisenhower, who died in 1969, should be honored in some way.
When the National Civic Art Society included Tigwell on a mailing list that linked to an Architecture magazine article critical of the design, she responded: “Please unsubscribe me from your drivel.”