The Architecture of Presidential Library Buildings

Archives of Remembrance and Legacy

ex-president Obama gesturing to a map in front of a seated audience
A Presidential Library Center Begins. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Like all architecture, presidential centers, libraries, and museums begin with a plan and a map. The plans and fundraising begin while the president is still in office. The building and its contents are an administration's legacy.

Until the 20th century, a President's office materials were considered personal property; Presidential papers were destroyed or removed from the White House when the President left office. The trend toward systematically archiving and consolidating American records began when President Franklin Roosevelt signed a 1934 law that established the National Archives. A few years later, in 1939, FDR set a precedent by donating all of his papers to the federal government. Further laws and regulations were developed to care for and administer presidential records, including the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act establishing the U.S. Presidential Libraries System, the 1978 Presidential Records Act (PRA), making every piece of paper and computer file the property of the citizenry, and the 1986 Presidential Libraries Act establishing architectural and design standards for presidential libraries.

Modern U.S. Presidents collect a lot of papers, files, records, digital audiovisual materials, and artifacts while in office. An archive is a building to keep all this library material. Sometimes the records and memorabilia themselves are called an archive. Presidents do not have to donate or "deed" them for administration by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), but Presidents have the opportunity to build the container to hold their archival material. That container is the building or group of buildings commonly known as their presidential library.

What follows is a journey to some of the presidential centers, libraries, and museums around the U.S. — literally from coast to coast.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY

steep grey roof with dormers overhanding a U-shaped building with columned porch
FDR Presidential Library, Hyde Park, New York. Dennis K. Johnson/Getty Images

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) started it all with his library built on Roosevelt's estate in Hyde Park, New York. Dedicated on July 4, 1940, the FDR Library became a model for future Presidential libraries — (1) built with private funds; (2) built on a site with roots to the President's personal life; and (3) administered by the federal government. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) runs all Presidential libraries.

Presidential libraries are not like public lending libraries, although they are public. Presidential libraries are buildings that can be used by any researcher. These libraries are usually associated with a museum area with displays for the general public. Often a childhood home or final resting place is included on the site. The smallest Presidential library in size is the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (47,169 square feet) in West Branch, Iowa.

"A Presidential library, despite combining the practical purposes of archive and museum, is chiefly a shrine," suggests architect and author Witold Rybczynski. "But a curious sort of shrine, for it's conceived and built by its subject."

Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri

Expansive entry of brilliant white stone, columns and glass facade, wide stairs
Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third President of the United States (1945–1953), has long been associated with Independence, Missouri. The Truman Presidential Library, dedicated in July 1957, was the first to be created under the provisions of the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act.

President Truman was interested in both architecture and preservation. The library even includes Truman's own architectural sketches for his presidential library. Truman is also on record as a defender of preserving the Executive Office Building as it faced demolition in Washington, D.C.

Another distinguishing feature of the Truman Library is a 1961 mural in the main lobby. Painted by American regional artist Thomas Hart Benton, Independence and the Opening of the West recounts the early years of the U.S. from 1817 to 1847.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas

sign says Library on lawn in front of stone building with five square pillars
Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas. Eisenhower Presidential Library/Public Domain

Dwight David Eisenhower was the thirty-fourth President of the United States (1953–1961). The land surrounding Eisenhower's boyhood home in Abilene, Kansas has been developed in homage to Eisenhower and his legacy. A variety of architectural styles can be found on the multi-acre campus, including the nineteenth century boyhood home of Eisenhower, a traditional, stately, columned stone library and museum, a modern visitors' center and gift shop, a midcentury style chapel, and numerous statuary and plaques.

The Eisenhower Presidential Library was dedicated in 1962 and opened to researchers in 1966. The exterior is clad with Kansas limestone and plate glass. The interior walls are Italian Laredo Chiaro marble, and the floors are covered with Roman Travertine trimmed with French marble. American native walnut paneling is used throughout.

Both President and Mrs. Eisenhower are buried in the chapel on site. Called a Place of Meditation, the chapel building was designed by Kansas State architect James Canole in 1966. The crypt is of Arabian Travertine marble from Germany, Italy, and France.

John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts

modern building, white circular near steps and glass tower in rear, sailboat on plaza
John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts, 1979, I. M. Pei. Andrew Gunners/Getty Images

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), assassinated while in office, was the thirty-fifth President of the United States (1961–1963). The Kennedy Library was originally to be built at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but fears of congestion moved the site south to a less urban, seaside environment near the Boston neghborhood of Dorchester. Mrs. Kennedy's chosen architect, a young I. M. Pei, reworked the Cambridge design to fit the 9.5 acre site overlooking Boston Harbor. The modern library was dedicated in October 1979.

It's been said that the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, France, looks strikingly similar to the original design for the Kennedy Library — Pei did the original designs for both. Pei also designed the addition in 1991 of the Stephen E. Smith Center. The original 115,000 square foot building was expanded with the 21,800 square foot addition.

The style is modern, with a triangular nine-story tower on a two-story base. The tower is precast concrete, 125 feet high, near a glass-and-steel pavilion, 80 feet long by 80 feet wide and 115 feet high.
The interior has museum space, research library areas, and open spaces for public discussion and reflection. "Its openness is the essence," Pei has said.

Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, Texas

LBJ Library, built 1971, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas
Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, Texas, Gordon Bunshaft. Don Klumpp/Getty Images

Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) was the thirty-sixth President of the United States (1963–1969). The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum is on 30 acres at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. The modern and monolithic building, dedicated on May 22, 1971, was designed by the 1988 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM). Texas architect R. Max Brooks of Brooks, Barr, Graeber, and White was the local production architect.

The building's travertine exterior projects a mightiness that proves everything's bigger in Texas. At ten stories and 134,695 square feet, the LBJ library is one of the largest operated by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Richard M. Nixon Library, Yorba Linda, California

Spanish-influenced architecture, red tile roof over building complex around elongated pond
Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Yorba Linda, California. Tim, dctim1 via flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

Richard Milhous Nixon, who resigned while in office, was the thirty-seventh President of the United States (1969–1974).

The chronology of public access to the Nixon papers highlights the historical significance of presidential papers and the delicate balance between privately-funded but publicly-administered buildings. From when Mr. Nixon resigned in 1974 until 2007, the President's archival material underwent legal battles and special legislation. The Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservations Act (PRMPA) of 1974 prohibited Mr. Nixon from destroying his archives and was the impetus for the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 (see Architecture of Archives).

The privately-owned Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace was built and dedicated in July 1990, but the U.S. government did not legally establish the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum until July 2007. Well after Mr. Nixon's 1994 death, the physical transfer of of his Presidential papers occurred in the spring of 2010, after an appropriate addition had been built to the 1990 library.

The well-known Southern California architecture firm of Langdon Wilson Architecture and Planning created a modest, regional design with traditional Spanish influences — red tile roofing and central courtyard — similar to the future Reagan Library that would be located less than 100 miles away.

Gerald R. Ford Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan

american flag near wreath on brick wall, detail of building
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Gerald R. Ford became the thirty-eighth President of the United States (1974–1977) when Richard Nixon resigned. A presidential library was never anticipated by a man who was never elected president or even vice president.

Ford's library and museum are in two different locations. The Gerald R. Ford Library is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Michigan. The Gerald R. Ford Museum is in Grand Rapids, 130 miles west of Ann Arbor, in Gerald Ford's hometown.

The Ford Presidential Library opened to the public in April 1981. The Michigan firm of Jickling, Lyman and Powell Associates designed the 50,000 square foot building.

As befitting a short presidency, the red brick building is rather small, described as "a low-lying two-story pale red brick and bronze-tinted glass structure." inside, the lobby visually opens onto an outdoor area dominated by a hypnotic kinetic sculpture by George Rickey.

The building was designed to be functional, but also with subtle grandeur, as the grand staircase in the lobby has glass-supported bronze railings, and the large skylights supply the red oak interiors with natural light.

Jimmy Carter Library, Atlanta, Georgia

saucer-like building of stone and glass in landscaped area
Carter Presidential Center, Atlanta, Georgia. h2kyaks via flickr.com Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) cropped

James Earl Carter, Jr. was the thirty-ninth President of the United States (1977–1981). Shortly after leaving office, President and Mrs. Carter founded the nonprofit Carter Center, in association with Emory University. Since 1982, the Carter Center has helped advance world peace and health. The NARA-run Jimmy Carter Library adjoins the Carter Center and shares the landscape architecture. The entire 35-acre park, known as the Carter Presidential Center, has modernized the intent of Presidential Libraries from centers of Presidential adoration to nonprofit think tanks and humanitarian initiatives.

The Carter Library in Atlanta, Georgia opened October 1986 and the archives opened January 1987. The architectural firms of Jova/Daniels/Busby of Atlanta and Lawton/Umemura/Yamamoto of Honolulu deisnged the 70,000 square feet. The landscape architects were EDAW, Inc. of Atlanta and Alexandria, Virginia, and the Japanese Garden was designed by Japanese master gardener, Kinsaku Nakane.

Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley, California

Red tiled roofs overhang brown columns of horizontal building complex
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, California. Randy Stern, Victory & Reseda on flickr.com, www.randystern.net, CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

Ronald Reagan was the fortieth President of the United States (1981–1989). The Reagan library was dedicate on November 4, 1991 on a 29 acre campus on 100 acres in the Simi Valley of Southern California. Boston architects Stubbins Associates designed the 150,000 square foot campus in a regional Spanish mission style, with traditional red tile roof and a central courtyard similar in design to the Nixon Presidential Library.

Presidential libraries are frequented by researchers poking through papers in the archives. The library system was created for the archives. What the public wants to see, however, is all the other stuff of a presidency — the oval office, the Berlin Wall, and Air Force One. At the Reagan Library, a visitor can see it all. The Air Force One Pavilion at the Reagan Library has an actual out-of-service aircraft used by seven presidents in addition to helicopters and limousines. It's like a visit to Hollywood.

George Bush Library, College Station, Texas

neo-classical building with many U.S. flaggs in front
George Herbert Walker Bush Presidential Library, College Station, Texas. Joe Mitchell/Getty Images

George Herbert Walker Bush ("Bush 41") was the forty-first President of the United States (1989–1993) and father of President George W. Bush ("Bush 43"). The George Bush Presidential Library Center at Texas A & M University is a 90-acre area that is also home to the Bush School of Government and Public Service, the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, and the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center.

The George Bush library is in College Station, Texas. The George W. Bush Library is at the Bush Center in nearby Dallas, Texas. The College Station Library was dedicate in November 1997 — years before George W. became presidnet and another Bush Library would be realized.

The library's research room opened January 1998, according to Presidential Records Act guidelines. The well-known architectural firm of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) designed the library and museum of almost 70,000 square feet, and Manhattan Construction built it.

William J. Clinton Library, Little Rock, Arkansas

modern building sweeping over a body of water from land
William J. Clinton Presidential Library, Little Rock, Arkansas. Alex Wong/Getty Images

William Jefferson Clinton was the forty-second President of the United States (1993–2001). The Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas is located within the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, on the banks of the Arkansas River.

James Stewart Polshek and Richard M. Olcott of Polshek Partnership Architects (renamed Ennead Architects LLP) were the architects and George Hargreaves was the ladscape architect. The modern industrial design takes the form of an unfinished bridge. "Clad in glass and metal," say the architects, "the building’s bold cantilevered form emphasizes connections and is both a reference to Little Rock’s distinctive 'Six Bridges' and a metaphor for the President’s progressive ideals."

The Clinton Library is 167,000 square feet within a 28 acre public park. The site was dedicated in 2004.

George W. Bush Library, Dallas, Texas

classically postmodern building at dusk, detail of entrance
George W. Bush Presidential Library, Dallas, Texas, 2013, Robert A. M. Stern. Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

George W. Bush, son of President George H. W. Bush, was the forty-third President of the United States (2001– 2009) and was in office at the time of the terrorist attacks in 2001. Information and artifacts from that time in American history are highlighted in the Bush 43 Presidential Center dedicated in April 2013.

The library is located within a 23-acre park on the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas. His father's Presidential Library, The George Bush Library, is in nearby College Station.

The 226,000 square foot complex on three floors includes a museum, archives, an institute and foundation. The conservative, clean design is constructed of steel and reinforced concrete clad with masonry (red brick and stone) and glass, Twenty percent of the construction materials used were recycled and regionally sourced. No so obvious to visitors is the green roof and solar panels. The surrounding land is populated with native plantings serviced by 50 percent on site irrigation.

The well-known New York architect Robert A. M. Stern and his firm RAMSA designed the center. Like the Bush 41 presidential library, Manhattan Construction Company built it. The landscape architect was Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sources

  • Bernstein, Fred. Archive Architecture: Setting the Spin in Stone. The New York Times, June 10, 2004
  • Bush Center. By the Numbers: The George W. Bush Presidential Center
    (http://bushcenter.imgix.net/legacy/By%20the%20Numbers.pdf); Design and Construction Team (http://www.bushcenter.org/sites/default/files/Team%20Fact%20Sheet%20.pdf)
  • Carter Center. Frequently Asked Questions. https://www.cartercenter.org/about/faqs/index.html
  • Carter Presidential Library and Museum. ttps://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov
  • Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home. The Buildings (http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/visit_us/buildings.html);
    Information Fact Sheet (http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/information/media_kit/fact_sheet.pdf); Charles L. Brainard Papers, 1945-69 (http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/finding_aids/pdf/Brainard_Charles_Papers.pdf)
  • Ennead. William J. Clinton Presidential Center. http://www.ennead.com/work/clinton
  • Ford Presidential Library. History of the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum. https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/history.asp
  • George H.W.Bush Presidential Library Center. https://www.bush41.org/
  • Kennedy Presidential Library. I.M. Pei, Architect. https://www.jfklibrary.org/about-us/about-the-jfk-library/history/im-pei-architect
  • LBJ Presidential Library. History at http://www.lbjlibrary.org/page/library-museum/history
  • National Archives. National Archives History (https://www.archives.gov/about/history); Presidential Library History (https://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/about/history.html); Frequently Asked Questions about Presidential Libraries (https://www.archives.gov/presidential-
    libraries/about/faqs.html)
  • Nixon Library. History of the Nixon Presidential Materials. http://www.nixonlibrary.gov/aboutus/laws/libraryhistory.php
  • Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.reaganfoundation.org/library-museum/; Library Facts. www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/reference/libraryfacts.htm; https://www.reaganlibrary.gov
  • Rybczynski, Witold. Presidential Libraries: Curious Shrines. The New York Times, July 7, 1991
  • Truman Library & Museum. History of the Truman Presidential Museum & Library. https://www.trumanlibrary.org/libhist.htm