Fred A. Bernstein

Clinton's Legacy: Just a Little Library from Little Rock

The Clinton library rises on the Arkansas River

Published in The New York Times, June 10, 2004

Archive Architecture: Setting the Spin in Stone


EVERY day, a worker climbs to the roof of the Clinton Presidential Center here and hoists three seven-foot-high numbers onto a steel frame. The numbers tell drivers on Interstate 30, just west of the site, how many days remain until Nov. 18, when Bill Clinton is expected to open the $175 million project that embodies his postpresidential ambitions.

Millions of people pass by that sign every year, Skip Rutherford said. And as president of the nonprofit William J. Clinton Foundation, which is overseeing the construction, Mr. Rutherford figures that at least 300,000 of them will want to visit the 11th, and by far most expensive, of the nation's presidential libraries each year. The runner-up, the library built for the first President Bush in College Station, Tex., cost about half as much to construct.

The Clinton center, at 152,000 square feet, far exceeds the 70,000-square-foot guideline included in a 1986 law on presidential libraries. But that "one size fits all" approach did not anticipate the fact that Mr. Clinton, who served two terms in the age of computerization, has a far larger collection of documents - 90 million - than any president before him. Nor could it have accounted for the fact that Mr. Clinton, the youngest ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt, is determined to make a splash.

Polshek Partnership Architects of New York designed the museum in the shape of a bridge. The center will also include a park, archives and a public policy school named for Mr. Clinton. If the exhibits (including Hillary Rodham Clinton's inaugural gowns and a description of the Monica Lewinsky affair) aren't enough, the possibility of seeing the 42nd president might be: Mr. Rutherford said Mr. Clinton expects to spend 7 to 10 days a month in a glass-walled penthouse. Its floor-to-ceiling windows will be visible not only from the grounds of the museum but from downtown Little Rock (and from the condo of two Friends of Bill, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, across the freeway).

"I fully expect that when the president is here, he'll be going downstairs and giving tours to a little old lady from Des Moines," Mr. Rutherford said. With Mr. Clinton's memoir, "My Life," due from Knopf on June 22, Mr. Rutherford expects the former president to resume active fund-raising for the library, which began early in his second term.

"I'm starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not a freight train," he said of his seven-year fund-raising effort.

But the tunnel keeps getting longer. Mr. Rutherford's latest estimate of the overall cost is $175 million (about half of it in building costs), up from $125 million in 1999. He will have to deliver a $7.2 million endowment to help pay the federal government's cost of upkeep. The presidential libraries are built with private money but, except for the Nixon library, they are run by the National Archives and Records Administration. That agency estimates that it will cost over $4 million to operate the Clinton library in its first year.

After rejecting several sites that would have been easier to build on, Mr. Clinton chose a 28-acre abandoned warehouse area across the freeway from downtown, with the aim of creating a vast urban renewal project. Already, according to Little Rock's city manager, Bruce Moore, the Clinton library has brought almost $1 billion in private investment to the area around it. Barry Travis, chief executive of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, said a study commissioned by the bureau found that "if the library attracted 150,000 to 300,000 visitors a year, we calculated there would be from $8.6 million to $17.5 million in direct tourism expenditures, and that doesn't include any other types of economic development that the library might spawn." The 11 existing presidential libraries, counting the Nixon library, average about 150,000 visitors a year each.

The city of Little Rock will maintain the park around the library (designed by the landscape architect George Hargreaves), and may turn an abandoned railroad bridge next to the building into an additional attraction. The city had to acquire 11 parcels of land for the center, but a real estate developer, Eugene Pfeifer III, refused to sell his parcel. When the city condemned Mr. Pfeifer's land, he sued. The Arkansas Supreme Court rejected his claim in 2001, but not before the suit (which had left the final dimensions of the site in doubt) delayed the completion of architectural drawings.

Now Mr. Rutherford is planning a lavish opening weekend after the November election so Mr. Clinton and President Bush can comfortably share the stage. All the other living former presidents - Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush - are also invited. "Getting it built can be very political," Mr. Rutherford said, "but in the end everyone comes together."

Most presidential libraries are in traditional styles. (The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, in Yorba Linda, Calif., is building an ornate replica of the East Room of the White House, which will be available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.) The Kennedy library, by I. M. Pei, and the Johnson library, by Gordon Bunshaft, are more modern but present forbidding facades.

The Clinton center design, by the same architects who designed the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has a similarly luminous appearance. Richard M. Olcott, a partner in the firm who collaborated with James S. Polshek on the project, said he presented several schemes to Mr. Clinton, but as soon as he mentioned the bridge idea, "there was no turning back."

Mr. Olcott recalled the moment: "President Clinton said, `It's a bridge to the 21st century,' and several aides in the room groaned. And he said, `No one ever liked my bridge to the future - except me and the voters.' "

But the "bridge" stops short of the Arkansas River. "The Secret Service nixed that - the concern was that a ship with explosives could pull up underneath," Mr. Polshek recalled. "But when you get to the end of the building, you'll feel like you're out on the river."

The building's biggest surprise may be the apartment built for Mr. Clinton on its roof. The Clinton, Bush and Reagan libraries all have presidential apartments, but they are out of public view. Mr. Clinton's 2,000-square-foot residence is a kind of Modernist glass box - like Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House on the roof of a much larger building.

Such openness might seem an odd choice for a person who requires round-the-clock Secret Service protection. But Mr. Clinton likes attention: one Little Rock taxi driver, George Coleman, remembered seeing him standing on a street corner after he lost a race for governor. It was as if he were "waiting for somebody to come over and shake his hand," Mr. Coleman recalled.

Mr. Clinton was born 100 or so miles away in Hope; the first house he lived in, which belonged to his grandparents, is now open to the public. Another of his childhood homes in Hope was offered for sale on eBay this spring, but the auction was derailed because some fake bids were submitted. The owners of that three-bedroom house, Gary and Javonna Johnson, have put it back on the market for $100,000, Mr. Johnson said. Another Clinton boyhood home, in Hot Springs, Ark., was badly damaged in a fire earlier this year. None of those houses is as glamorous as Mr. Clinton's new cabin in the sky. Referring to a huge terrace outside the apartment, Mr. Olcott, the architect, said, "I expect him to be chipping golf balls into the river."

Outfitting the apartment has been left to Kaki Hockersmith, the Little Rock decorator who has designed dozens of rooms for Mr. Clinton, starting in the Arkansas governor's mansion. Most have been in traditional styles, with heavy draperies and richly colored upholstery. But Ms. Hockersmith said she was hoping to push Mr. Clinton in the direction of modern design, to pick up on the themes established by the building.

Mr. Polshek's allies included Chelsea Clinton, who visited the firm's addition to the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford while she was an undergraduate there, and, Mr. Clinton said, "loved it."

"That made me even more comfortable with picking Jim," he said, adding that the family held his daughter's graduation party at the Cantor Center.

Mr. Clinton said he and Mr. Olcott talked about modeling the building on the library of Trinity College, Dublin, which he recalled from travels during his days as a Rhodes scholar. That building consists of a series of alcoves framed by columns, and Mr. Olcott responded with a 240-foot-long colonnaded museum space that will hold installations by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, a New York exhibitions designer.

Those exhibits will include some of the foundation's 80,000 artifacts, including a 1967 Mustang like one driven by Mr. Clinton as a young man, along with 50 saxophones. At a version of the White House cabinet table, it will be possible to learn about Clinton administration policies while sitting in the appropriate cabinet secretary's chair.

But the pi�ce de r�sistance may be the museum's oval office, which is situated so that light will stream through its windows, creating a verisimilitude lacking in the other post-presidential ovals, which are generally enclosed in windowless museum spaces.

Inside, Ms. Hockersmith is recreating everything that was in Mr. Clinton's office, including the dark blue rug with 50 white stars that she designed in 1992. There will be a cast of Rodin's "Thinker," a reproduction of a painting by Childe Hassam and copies of things like paperweights and the photos that stood on Mr. Clinton's desk.

Rett Tucker, a Little Rock real estate agent, said the value of land around the center has more than doubled since the Clinton project was announced. Mr. Moore, the city manager, said the Clinton library set off a building boom that is to include a new headquarters for the Heifer Project International, a Little Rock charity that provides livestock to help poor people become self-sufficient.

What people can't see at the museum, they may be able to see elsewhere in Little Rock - a city obsessed with Clintoniana.

The lucky few may be invited to Ms. Hockersmith's palatial home in the Edgehill neighborhood, which is filled with photos of the Clintons and where the fabric on the sofa cushions is the one Ms. Hockersmith used at the White House. At her home, drinks are served in glasses with the seal of Camp David - purchased in the gift shop there, she pointed out.

The Holiday Inn Presidential Center has filled its lobby with Clinton memorabilia (including "autographed" photos of the presidential pets Socks and Buddy). The hotel has recently changed the name of its restaurant to Camp David. All over town, taxi drivers are dusting off their Clinton anecdotes.

The cabdrivers may be free to embellish, but the museum - with its millions in government financing - will be held to a higher standard. Mr. Rutherford said Mr. Clinton meets regularly with the exhibition designers, reviewing how his legacy will be presented. But the exhibitions, Mr. Rutherford said, "are still a work in progress."

Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer, pointed out that on opening day, libraries of this sort tend to reflect a former president's own view of history. Over time - and under the control of federal archivists - the depiction tends to become more balanced.

At the Johnson library in Austin, Tex., "the first director viewed it as a place to present the Johnson presidency in its most favorite light," Mr. Caro said.

"Mortality takes its toll," he added, "but the papers remain."

The National Archives and Records Administration will have final say over the exhibitions. "We don't expect exhibits to make the president look bad," said Sharon Fawcett, the agency's deputy assistant archivist for presidential libraries. "But we do expect to have a clear statement of facts, and acknowledgment that there are two sides to the story."

If not, she said, "we don't have to accept the building."