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What tourists (yes, even local ones) can expect when visiting Washington’s new Eisenhower Memorial

  • September 18, 2020

WASHINGTON — The nation’s capital didn’t get a chance to capitalize on tourism season this year given the coronavirus pandemic. But a new memorial opening Friday should interest politically-savvy locals (especially those who have been paying attention to all the drama during its development).

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial is finally opening after a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic; it was supposed to in May to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ defeat of Nazi Germany.

The memorial, meant to honor Eisenhower’s legacy as the supreme allied commander in World War II and the 34th U.S president, has actually been more than 20 years in the making since Congress commissioned it in 1999,

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission has held events all week leading up to the dedication on Thursday before the memorial opens to the public on Friday.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial is finally opening after a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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What tourists can expect at the Eisenhower Memorial

The memorial is a four-acre park and features several columns, statues and a large stainless steel woven tapestry all meant to honor Eisenhower, designed by architect Frank Gehry.

Two giant columns on either side of Maryland Avenue in Washington flank the memorial. One denotes Eisenhower’s accomplishments as president and the other represents his achievements leading the Allied forces in WWII.

The legislation that formed the memorial commission required Eisenhower be recognized for both achievements, which “makes it unusual for a presidential memorial,”  Victoria Tigwell, deputy executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, told USA TODAY during a walking tour. 

The tapestry, intended to memorialize D-Day, is the real marvel: it’s 450 feet long and 60 feet tall, posted 85 feet off the ground, with wires welded on to a stainless steel grid of 600 panels. Artist Tomas Osinski created the work which features the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc on Normandy’s coast in peacetime. Tigwell said the tapestry was created from a sketch Gehry drew.

Tourists and locals can visit the Eisenhower Memorial beginning Friday and view the beautiful tapestry, among other sights.

During the day, it’s best viewed from the back. But visitors can head there at night for a dazzling lit-up display from the front.

Elsewhere at the site are two large scenes also featuring Eisenhower’s military and presidential roles. The military scene features Eisenhower symbolically addressing soldiers with a quote in large, block text above that he said on D-Day on June 6, 1944: “The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!”

The presidential diorama features Eisenhower with three advisors, one military and two civilian. One of the civilian figures is African-American. “We wanted to highlight Eisenhower’s work in civil rights,” Tigwell said. “It’s often overlooked for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But while he was president, he signed the first Civil Rights Act since reconstruction, desegregated Washington, D.C. [and] completed the desegregation of the military.”

Why should tourists make the memorial a must-see stop? Apart from a view of the Capitol Building in the distance, Tigwell said it will be even more eye-catching than the typical Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials at night. “The tapestry at night is transformative in what it does to this space,” she said.

Tigwell also reminded that the space isn’t only for tourists. Locals can come and sit on benches during work breaks (when workers return to their offices, that is): “This is the only presidential memorial that’s surrounded by buildings where people work every day. So now they have a park where they can come and eat lunch.” Department of Education staffers, if you’re reading this, it will be most convenient for you.

Tourism has plummeted in D.C. due to the pandemic. In July, the number of hotel room-days sold was 83% less than that time last year, and May airline traffic was 91.2% down from the year before, according to a report from the city’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

What’s the deal with the Eisenhower Memorial controversy?

While stunning, the memorial has not been without its share of controversy during its development, according to reports from CBS News and The Guardian.

One point of contention during the memorial’s development was Gehry’s design of a young Eisenhower looking at metal tapestries showcasing some of his  big life moments.

A young Eisenhower statue at the Eisenhower Memorial.

“I think we were perplexed by the design,” the president’s granddaughter Susan Eisenhower told CBS News. “The idea that a young boy would be looking at his future and wishing, what? To become commander of the most devastating war in human history? I don’t think he was dreaming to do that.” 

The memorial features a sculpture of Eisenhower as a teenager, inspired by a photo of him camping in his hometown ofAbilene, Kansas, still looking into the distance at a future version of himself (though not the original planned tapestry).

“The sculpture of young Eisenhower is accompanied by his own remarks about the ‘dreams of a barefoot boy,'” Tigwell said. “The inspiration is the notion that, regardless of what those aspirations may be, all children have dreams. And America’s promise to our children is the freedom and opportunity to pursue those dreams.” 

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