By Tom Ramstack
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal planning commission in Washington on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial by famed architect Frank Gehry, a project long criticized for its unconventional style and cost overruns.
The design endorsed by the National Capital Planning Commission includes a pair of 80-foot columns and a 447-foot steel tapestry that depicts the Kansas plains where Eisenhower spent his boyhood.
Eisenhower was elected as the 34th U.S. president after becoming a five-star U.S. Army general and serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War Two.
The memorial will stand on four acres of land a short walk from the U.S. Capitol, just off the National Mall. Presidential memorials for Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, as well as the Washington Monument, are near the site.
The commission's vote follows 15 years of discussion and disputes over the design. Gehry's use of tapestries, instead of traditional statuary, has drawn the most criticism, especially from some members of Congress and the Eisenhower family.
The commission's chairman, L. Preston Bryant Jr., said the panel was following federal standards on "how the project serves a public space" in approving the plan, rather than trying to impose its opinions on the design.
"The commission is guided by adherence to the law," Bryant said.
Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican of California who is an ex officio member of the planning commission, had preferred a more conventional design. Gehry, perhaps best known for the dramatic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, had threatened to remove his name from the project if the plan was accepted.
Gehry's original design had included four columns and three tapestries.
The proposed freestanding columns "look like chimneys," Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society and one of the plan's critics, said to the commission on Thursday. "The memorial is a viaduct to nowhere."
Congress authorized the memorial in 1999, at the time setting a completion date for 2007. The original contract called for the price to come in under $19 million. Congress has already spent $65 million on the memorial.
Approvals by other federal agencies, arrangements for funding and a final sign-off by the secretary of the interior are required before construction can begin.
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)