Frank Gannon: Presidential Libraries

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[Frank Gannon won a White House Fellowship and served in the Nixon White House 1971-4. He accompanied RN to San Clemente aboard Air Force One on August 9th and organized the researching and writing of the President’s memoirs, RN.]

Groundbreaking for the George W. Bush Presidential Center —the latest addition to the National Archives’ system of Presidential Libraries— will begin a year from now. The designs of architect Robert A. M. Stern were unveiled in Dallas on Wednesday. Several drawings were released, and the general impression was described in today’s Washington Post by architectural writer and critic Philip Kennicott:

Architect Robert A.M. Stern’s plans for the George W. Bush Presidential Center call for a low-slung building of brick and limestone, following traditional lines and hugging the Texas landscape with a calm reserve. It’s almost as if Bush has chosen to retreat into the patrician reticence of his blue-blooded, Connecticut forebears.

The library, with groundbreaking scheduled for November 2010 and an estimated cost of $250 million, will be built on the campus of Southern Methodist University and will house public exhibition space, a mock-up of the Oval Office, a conference center with 364-seat auditorium, and separate entry and offices for scholars. Visitors will enter through Freedom Hall, emblazoned with an American flag on its ceiling and capped by a square glass box that allows natural light to flow in.

Kennicott is harsh on the Clinton Library in Little Rock:

Compare this with the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, the shape of which recalls the 42nd president’s tediously repeated “bridge to the 21st century” metaphor. Created by Polshek Partnership, the Clinton library is a flashy, contemporary confection of aluminum and glass, with dramatic cantilevers and a high-tech gloss. Although Polshek’s work in Washington has tended to the empty and meretricious (e.g., the Newseum and desperately flawed plans for a visitor center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial), the library for Clinton achieved the brass ring of all too many architectural endeavors: instant iconic status.

Purely as a consumer in the competitive market of Presidential Libraries, I find that judgment misleading. One man’s tired metaphor may provide another man’s moment of quiet inspiration, and the Clinton Library —strikingly situated on a bluff above the bridge-crossed Little Rock River, and unconstrained by the style of any surrounding campus — provides the visitor an intriguingly site-specific experience. The interiors and exhibition spaces are open and friendly and sleekly modern. And walking through the replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room remind visitors of the tangible reality of the Office and the office.

I have recently had two occasions to visit and tour the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Virginia — the first time out of curiosity and the second out of interest based on the first. Wilson was one of RN’s favorite predecessors; he chose portraits of Wilson and Eisenhower for the Cabinet Room. The Wilson Library complex is bounded on one side by the mansion acquired to house the presidential papers and on the other by The Manse — the house in which Wilson was born in December 1856. Although he only spent his first year in Staunton, he always considered it as home and chose it as the site for his Library.

Each of the twelve —and soon to be thirteen— presidential libraries reflects the character and the times of its namesake. So comparing them is a business of apples and oranges. That said, and acknowledging that I’m myopic, I find the Nixon Library —designed by Langdon Wilson— especially architecturally suitable and institutionally successful —as both an accurate rendition of its namesake’s story and as an experience for the average visitor. Its setting, its design, and its general ambiance convey a real sense of the President and Mrs. Nixon. The remarkable arc of the Nixon story is all there — from the house where he was born to the simple polished granite headstones of his and Mrs. Nixon’s final resting places. And in the spacious and graciously proportioned building is the history of the deep valleys and high mountains they experienced between.

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