WASHINGTON — A new memorial opening Friday should be of high interest to Kansans.
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 his 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.
A dedication happened Thursday before the memorial opens to the public.
U.S. Congressman Roger Marshall, of Kansas, took time to celebrate on Facebook on the day of the dedication.
"We all have a President Eisenhower story, I think an affinity to President Eisenhower, if you’re from Kansas," he said in a Facebook video while wearing an "I Like Ike" face mask, a reference to the former president’s nickname.
The memorial is a 4-acre park and features several columns, statues and a large stainless steel woven tapestry all meant to honor Eisenhower, designed by architect Frank Gehry.
At the base of one of the statues in the memorial is a quote: "The proudest thing that I can claim is that I am from Abilene."
Eisenhower was born 1890 in Denison, Texas, but moved to Abilene two years later when his father got a job there as a mechanic at a creamery, according to the National World War II Museum.
He stayed and grew up there through his formative years until leaving for West Point in 1911. Though he visited often, he never resettled in Abilene until he was buried there, according to the museum.
Eisenhower, however, remembered his Kansas hometown fondly.
"These same conditions were responsible for the existence of a society which, more nearly than any other I have encountered, eliminated prejudices based upon wealth, race or creed, and maintained a standard of values that placed a premium upon integrity, decency, and consideration for others. Any youngster who has the opportunity to spend his early youth in an enlightened rural area has been favored by fortune," Ike wrote in a 1947 letter on his origins.
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.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, played an important role in the memorial’s creation as chair of that commission.
"I am proud to honor Kansas' favorite son with the unveiling of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial," said Roberts in a statement reported by the Military Times. "This memorial pays tribute to Ike’s historic leadership."
The memorial’s 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.
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 advisers, 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."
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.
"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 Abilene, 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."
Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Titus Wu contributed to this report.