The Eisenhower Memorial. Image from NCPC.

How much would Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial cost? A lot, but not more than other similar memorials if you adjust for the rising cost of construction.

At the recent National Capital Planning Commission meeting, the memorial’s executive architect, Daniel Feil, stated that the hard costs, including parts and labor, of their design, include the metal tapestries which NCPC disapproved, would be $65-75 million.

Including “soft costs” for items such as construction overhead, insurance, and payments to DDOT for lost parking meter revenue, the budget will likely be about just shy of $100 million, according to the memorial’s 2015 Budget Justification document.

There is no evidence for wild cost escalation. The competition announcement expected $55-75M in hard costs, and the announcement of the finalists listed $100M in total cost.  The $144M figure that pops up is the expected expenditure of the entire Memorial Commission, 2009-2017.

How does that stack up against other memorials?

Critics have highlighted the cost and size of the memorial relative to comparable projects. Certainly the size can be debated. In fact, the most frequent criticism from the Commission of Fine Arts is that the site is too large, irrespective of the architect.

However, many critics use the wrong price index and don’t account for the decreasing availability of highly skilled craftsmen over the years.

Most people know the Consumer Price Index (CPI) as a tool to calculate inflation. CPI follows the prices in a “basket” of consumer goods, but doesn’t reflect construction materials. Construction, like all industries where labor can’t be outsourced or automated, has seen inflation rise much faster than CPI.

There are, however, construction-specific price indices that calculate costs using a basket of construction goods. The most well-regarded is the Construction Costs Index, published by Engineering News-Record. If we use CCI to compare total cost of construction for major memorials nearby, the results are surprising.

Hist. CostYearIndexCCI estimateCPI estimate
Grant$250,0001922174 $13,900,000 $3,480,000
Jefferson$3,000,0001943290 $100,400,000 $39,900,000
T. Roosevelt$1,400,00019671,074 $12,600,000 $9,800,000
Vietnam$8,400,00019823,825 $21,300,000 $19,500,000
Korea$18,000,00019955,432 $32,100,000 $24,900,000
Pentagon$22,000,00020088,185 $26,100,000 $23,900,000
MLK$120,000,00020119,053 $128,600,000 $122,600,000
Click on a column header to sort.

In this light, the memorial is within the cost range of similar memorials. These costs don’t even take into account major changes in financing, liability, or code requirements. Furthermore, the basket of goods in the CCI reflects material and labor costs for basics like wood, concrete, and steel. It does not include the high-grade finishes and highly-specialized skills required for stonework and bronze.

Where’s the money going?

The Memorial Commission declined to provide a detailed cost breakdown, but Daniel Feil said at the meeting that one-third of the memorial’s cost is reconstructing the ground. The site currently has a few grass patches and a plaza split by a road. The soils are compacted and a number of utilities run through the site.

In order to bring the soil up to National Park Service’s standards for the National Mall, the design relocates utility lines and replaces the first five feet of soil.

Memorial site conditions and utilities. Eisenhower Memorial Commission / Gensler

Often, the most mundane elements of a design are the most costly. As seen in the cost of underground parking, excavation is very expensive and landscaping isn’t much cheaper. Any memorial that occupies the right-of-way also requires relocating utilities to construct foundations or avoid ripping up the ground to repair utilities.

Is the cost fair?

As a number of critics have noted, recent memorials have become larger and more landscaped. Kirk Savage, author of Monument Wars, ties this to a greater emphasis on personal experience in a memorial, beginning with the McMillan Plan and escalating with Vietnam and FDR.

At the same time, the construction industry faces very serious problems with its costs. It is one of the few industries to become less efficient since 1970. How they’ll reverse this trend is a billion-dollar question.

Both of these issues will remain big problems for our memorial landscape, and continue to dog the Eisenhower Memorial, however it gets built.