Magazine article Insight on the News

Presidential Palaces

Magazine article Insight on the News

Presidential Palaces

Article excerpt

Critics call lavish presidential libraries monuments to mammoth egos. But they're more than mere extravagant mausoleums, as historians point out and tourists testify.

Few Americans understand how presidential libraries come to be, what they do or how they meld with the overall government apparatus. But as far as scholars, educators and the government are concerned, presidential libraries are among the most important research sites in the United States.

"All you have to do is check the footnotes of the major prize-winning books and monographs dealing with the presidents and you'll see they all reference the presidential libraries," says Page Miller, director of the National Coordinating Committee for Promotion of History.

Beyond that, chamber of commerce boosters say the libraries are economic engines, tugging the curious and their dollars to communities where the libraries are located. "During the year before the George Bush Library in College Station, Texas, opened, 38 tour buses visited that city. In the first four months after it was finished, 450 rolled in," says Little Rock, Ark., businessman Skip Rutherford, head of the William Jefferson Clinton Library foundation.

Although the Clinton library still is under development, it has attracted "a major corporation that will build a multistory office adjacent to the library site," says Rutherford. "The company will create 700 jobs and bring a $25 million payroll to the city." He predicts the library will generate $10.7 million in business annually.

It also is expected to lure riders to Little Rock's new but mostly riderless downtown light-rail system, if the line is extended to run to the Clinton library. To help ensure the line -- and the library -- gets that boost, Clinton included $5 million for Little Rock lightrail expansion in his annual budget.

In the 25 years that attendance figures have been kept, presidential libraries have attracted 33,502,819 visitors. Last year, 1,415,305 professors, schoolchildren and tourists traipsed through the nation's 10 presidential libraries -- not including 18,200 more who searched the papers of former President Nixon. Nixon has no edifice for his papers and paraphernalia. As part of the fallout from the Watergate scandal, Congress ordered the National Archives and Records Administration to seize the historical materials created and received by the White House during Nixon's five-year administration.

Presidential libraries are actually archives, or repositories, where records and files are organized and maintained. All together, they contain more than 300,000,000 pages of text, 5,000,000 photographs, 14,000,000 feet of movie film, 70,000 hours of audio and video recordings and 330,000 artifacts (including President Kennedy's Oval Office rocker and 26-foot sailboat). Lyndon B. Johnson's library has a full-size, lifelike, automated statue of him gesturing and talking.

Also, unlike most public libraries, presidential facilities are built with private funds. (Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act 44 years ago and stipulated that such facilities be built and endowed by private foundations.) Once finished, the National Archives and Records Administration assumes control of the papers and other archival materials. The government, through the Office of Presidential Libraries at College Park, Md., pays the archivists' salaries and assumes the expense of maintenance and repairs. The foundation takes responsibility for exhibits and activities.

The presidential libraries are, for the most part, designed by acclaimed architects. World-famous I.M. Pei designed Kennedy's library. The prize-winning architects James Stewart Polshek and Richard Olcott will create Clinton's library on the bank of the Arkansas River, and exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum will do the Clinton displays. Franklin D. Roosevelt himself designed the Hyde Park, N.Y., library that, beginning in 1941, housed his presidential papers. …

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