(This version of the November 2nd story corrects amount to be raised to $25 million instead of $35 million in the last paragraph)
By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Construction of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial kicked off symbolically on Thursday after years of opposition to the late U.S. president’s $150 million monument by critics who balked at its cost and size.
Gilded shovels flashed as lawmakers, architect Frank Gehry and Eisenhower family members turned a trough of earth at a ceremonial groundbreaking for the four-acre (1.6-hectare) memorial to the 34th president and World War Two Allied commander.
“At last, at last, we’re building at last,” said Republican U.S. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the head of the memorial’s commission, as he held up the monument’s building permit. “Let’s get the job done.”
Dedication of the monument just off the National Mall and near the National Air and Space Museum is anticipated for May 8, 2019, the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War Two.
Congress approved the memorial in 1999, but opposition to Gehry’s plans stalled it for years. Criticism focused on eight-story-high columns supporting a steel tapestry portraying the Kansas prairies where Eisenhower grew up.
In 2014, a House of Representatives’ committee report referred to the memorial as a “five-star folly” plagued by rising costs, construction delays and design flaws.
The Republican president’s family dropped its objections last year after Gehry reduced the size and changed the tapestry’s image from Kansas farmland to Normandy beaches – the scene of the Allies’ 1944 D-Day invasion of France – to better reflect Eisenhower’s international stature.
Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, on Thursday downplayed the hurdles the memorial had faced and noted that the one to President Franklin Roosevelt had taken 43 years from conception to its opening in 1997.
“I’d say we’re way ahead of the timeline,” she said to laughter from onlookers, who included a handful of World War Two veterans.
Gehry’s plan got final approval from Washington’s planning and arts commissions this fall, and the site will be known as Eisenhower Park.
Some critics remain.
“It’s a national embarrassment that we are building a grandiose, inscrutable and ugly memorial that virtually no one likes,” Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, said in an email.
Congress, which had long refused to fund the project, allocated $45 million for construction in the current fiscal year.
Republican President Donald Trump’s administration is asking for another $40 million next year, and the memorial’s commission also is halfway to its goal of raising $25 million in private funds.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)