In the public debate over Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial, there have been frequent calls to scrap the current design and hold a national design competition, open to all. Again at the recent National Capital Planning Commission meeting that “disapproved” Gehry’s proposal, the claim was made that national competitions are the way that Washington, D.C. memorial designs have always been chosen. Let’s look at the historical record.
Washington Monument: in 1836, public competition won by Robert Mills.
Grant Memorial: design competition won by Henry Merwin Shrady, sculptor, and Edward Pearce Casey, architect.
Lincoln Memorial: an invited two-man competition between John Russell Pope and Henry Bacon, who won.
Jefferson Memorial: no competition, Pope was appointed the architect.
FDR Memorial: in 1960, open architects competition won by William F. Pederson & Bradford S. Tilney but disapproved by Commission of Fine Arts and Roosevelt family; in 1966, an invited architectural competition of 55 leading architects won by Marcel Breuer but disapproved by CFA; in 1974, open architects competition, 90 entries, won by Lawrence Halprin.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial: open pubic competition (1,421 entries) won by Maya Lin.
Korean War Veterans Memorial: open public competition (540 entries) won by a group of students from Penn State.
World War II Memorial: open public competition (407 entries), won by Friedrich St. Florian.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: open public competition (900+ entries) won by ROMA Design Group.
Eisenhower Memorial: 44 architects selected to compete using GSA’s Design Excellence Program, and Gehry chosen from among 4 finalists.
It’s a mixed bag. The Lincoln Memorial was the result of a design competition between two hand-picked architects; the Jefferson Memorial had no competition at all. The Washington Memorial did have a national competition, but the final design is really the work of Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey, who was responsible for its construction. And these are the best three memorials. Conversely, the designers of some of the least compelling memorials—FDR, Korean, WWII, MLK—were chosen through open national competitions. The open competition process was obviously influenced by the Vietnam Memorial, and the hope of uncovering an unknown young designer. Which turns out to be difficult, maybe impossible, to duplicate. One of my favorite memorials on the Mall is the District of Columbia War Memorial which honors DC residents who fell in WWI. The architect, Frederick H. Brooke, was simply given the job.