What Do Presidential Libraries Say About Their Namesakes’ Legacies?

Laura Bush revealed Robert A.M. Stern’s design for the George Bush presidential library this week. Our approval rating (low), plus the architectural legacies of six of his presidential predecessors.

What Do Presidential Libraries Say About Their Namesakes’ Legacies?

Part of the point of a presidential library is that it’s a monument to a
leader’s legacy–his style, his enduring affect on the world, even
his reading habits…or lack thereof. Speaking of which, Laura Bush unveiled the design for her husband’s book joint this week, and the ultra-traditional structure that nods to Washington but bows to the rest of Southern Methodist University’s campus isn’t winning any points with architecture critics. But how does W’s design stack up against his predecessors? We checked out the libraries of fellow recent commanders-in-chief completed in the last three decades to compare.

George W. Bush Presidential Center

43’s George W. Bush Presidential Center was designed by New York-based architect Robert A.M. Stern to match the rest of SMU’s Neo-Georgian campus. The brick and limestone structure is meant to evoke both Washington and Texas through its classical architecture and native landscaping (is that brush we see out front for Bush to clear?). The building is also chock-full of sustainable features which may earn it a Platinum LEED rating, which is interesting, since Bush famously battled climate change regulation while in office. All in all, Bush’s library seems to be laying low…really low. He’s hoping to blend invisibly into the landscape, and SMU’s campus, and, well, we’re guessing, history in general. Maybe to liven things up a bit, Stern could borrow a few of the concepts from this 2008 contest to design the Bush library.

William J. Clinton Presidential Center

Over in Little Rock, Arkansas, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center also earned a Platnium LEED rating for its green roof and energy efficiency, but for appropriately diametrically-opposed architecture. The bold, cantilevered ultracontemporary box also represents a huge departure from the traditional libraries of the past–much like Clinton’s look-at-me governance. Designed by Polshek Partnership, it’s flashy, confident–dare we say slick?–and a bit of a showoff against the traditional riverfront. Yep, just like Willie’s built a new globe-trotting legacy for himself post-presidency, he’s built a center of world-class architecture that’s got both eyes firmly on the future.

George Bush Library and Museum

Would Bush Senior depart from the style that worked in Washington for so long? Na-gonna-do-it. The stately gigantic rotunda and array of American flags that welcomes you to the George Bush Library and Museum says, “Hey, I’m still president.” The building was designed by Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum and resides on the Texas A&M campus in College Station. Maybe he got comfortable in circular buildings (Oval Offices?) so he borrowed the distintive domed architectural element found in most government buildings. And do those little notches in the stone flood the rotunda with a thousand points of light? It’s traditional to be sure, but makes a big statement–bigger than 41’s.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library

Fitting for a Great Communicator, the massive Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library designed by Hugh Stubbins and Associates is the biggest library, located in the rolling hills of Simi Valley, outside L.A. Here, Reagan left D.C. and never looked back: The Spanish structures are pure California sunshine, the friendly style puts visitors at ease, and it even has a twist of old Hollywood, using the style most popular for the mansions of his fellow stars. Hints at the film industry also make an appearance in two of Reagan’s larger-than-life touches: The grounds feature a full-sized replica of the Oval Office and a 90,000 square foot hangar where the former Air Force One resides.

Jimmy Carter Library & Museum

The Jimmy Carter Library & Museum is a groovy yet unassuming modern outpost on a hill to the east of downtown Atlanta. Completed in 1986, the complex has a bit of contemporary Southern flavor, with a series of low-slung rounded buildings surrounded by plenty of pillars, as designed by Jova/Daniels/Busby and Lawton, Umemura & Yamamoto. It’s laid-back and accessible, with plenty of gardens and ponds for reflection (but where’s the peanut farm?). The structure recently got an extensive $10 million revamp by Gallagher & Associates, to include more of Carter’s achievements post-office. That, plus the presence of Carter’s bustling human rights foundation Carter Center shows that Carter’s legacy, as well as his library, is still a work-in-progress.

Gerald R. Ford Libraryand Museum

Located in Ford’s hometown of Grand Rapids, the Gerald R. Ford Library & Museum is a glass and concrete complex that looks more like it could be Ford Motor Company’s corporate headquarters. Maybe this nods to his Michigan-industrial roots? Marvin DeWinter Associates didn’t endeavor to make this place fancy-feeling (although the fountain outside is a nice nod to the river). Like Ford, it’s pretty vanilla, and somewhat socially awkward: It’s situated on the other side of the river from downtown, like an outsider. The museum was dedicated in 1981 (the physical library portion of the center is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan).


The Nixon Presidential Library and Museum was actually opened after Carter’s, in 1990–maybe the Nixon aides needed a little more time to um, edit, the archival materials. You would have expected a more “forget-me” structure out of Nixon, but in all honesty, this is one of the most beautiful. There’s almost a resort feeling to this complex, designed by Langdon Wilson Architecture Planning (hey, if anyone needed a vacation after being in office…). Also on the grounds is Nixon’s birthplace, a kit house built by his father in 1912. Interestingly, Watergate is addressed in the museum, but it’s not the most controversial topic at the center. That distinction belongs to two statues of Chinese leaders Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai that have been recently protested by Chinese visitors. Maybe Nixon put them there for distraction.

Of course there are more presidential libraries you can check out, but if we had to pick an overall winner when it comes to design reflecting its president’s legacy? We’d say Clinton, in a landslide.

[Clinton library via Inhabitat]



About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato