George W. Bush library set to open at SMU

03/25/2013 6:28 AM

03/25/2013 6:54 AM

The construction fence is down; the heavy equipment is gone.

After 2 1/2 years of construction -- and several years of planning -- work on the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the edge of Southern Methodist University is down to the finishing touches.

Workers are busy arranging exhibits, beginning the last phase of landscaping and addressing other final details before the center, a tribute to the 43rd president, is unveiled to an invitation-only audience April 25 and to the general public May 1.

"What was a dream four years ago is today a reality," Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation, has said.

The reality is a 226,560-square-foot center that houses a library and a museum, presidential archives, a public policy institute, the Bush foundation and a 15-acre park, all honoring Bush's two terms in office.

The red brick-and-limestone building features signature architecture such as Freedom Hall, whose 67-foot tower has a lantern that glows at night.

Few details are being released about the ceremony to dedicate the center, which comes more than four years after the Bushes left the White House and returned to Dallas.

Presidential library openings generally include days of festivities, drawing dignitaries and officials from around the world -- as well as all living presidents and first ladies who are able to travel -- not to mention global media coverage.

"It is an historic event in and of itself," said Larry Sabato, political analyst and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Officials haven't revealed the center's cost, although reports show that the foundation raised around $300 million in private donations for the center and that fundraising continues for public policy programs at the institute.

Initial projections are that about half a million people will visit during the first year.

The presidential center

The 24-acre site at SMU, the alma mater of Laura Bush, was designed by New York architect Robert A.M. Stern and landscaped by Michael Van Valkenburgh.

Inside, it will feature a Decisions Point Theater and a life-size "Oval Office" that will look as if it were taken straight out of the White House during Bush's tenure from 2001 to 2009.

Outside, visitors may take a break in the Texas Rose Garden, a version of the White House Rose Garden with plants that flourish in the Texas heat.

The three-story complex will include Freedom Hall, which features a 360-degree high-definition video wall, and Freedom Plaza -- a courtyard and fountain.

Other attractions will include a 14,000-square-foot permanent exhibit, a restaurant, classrooms, research rooms, offices, seminar rooms, an auditorium and a presidential suite.

There will be storage rooms for archives -- including temperature-controlled areas -- as well as archival processing and exhibit preparation rooms, not to mention the 15-acre park around the complex, which is about five miles from downtown.

Most materials for the complex, the nation's 13th presidential library, came from within 500 miles of Dallas.

Pecan paneling inside and red brick and Texas limestone outside are meant to pay homage to the state.

Bluebonnets and other wildflowers will be part of the landscaping.

Officials say the center will continue the look of SMU's Georgian-style campus, with simple walls made from Texas limestone and red brick.

Laura Bush, who presided over the design process, has said she wanted the building to have a modern look -- especially since her husband was president during the first decade of this century -- but still blend in with the campus.

Officials tout the use of recycled and "green" techniques and materials, such as rooftop solar hot-water panels, rainwater harvesting and highly reflective roofs.

Preserving history

A key mission of the center will be the privately funded Bush Policy Institute, which will be "committed to serious, independent research aimed at generating practical solutions to important public policy problems."

The institute will focus on education, global health, freedom and economic growth.

"It will preserve for history the important decisions made by President Bush during his presidency and will embody and carry on the values of President and Mrs. Bush," Langdale has said.

"We look forward to being a vibrant part of the greater SMU campus and continuing the service of President and Mrs. Bush through the work of the George W. Bush Institute."

Officials have said the center and its opening will not be affected by sequestration -- the automatic spending cuts triggered when federal leaders couldn't agree on a better way to reduce spending.

Cuts have, however, forced the National Archives and Records Administration to cut public hours at facilities in the Washington, D.C., area. And they have, at least for now, halted plans to have the Midland home where George W. Bush grew up designated a national historic site.

Millions of pages

The library, which will be operated by the archives and records administration, will house and preserve items from Bush's time in the White House.

For months, workers have been transferring records to the center from a Lewisville warehouse where they have been stored since Bush left office.

The items include more than 200 million emails, 80 terabytes of digital information, nearly 70 million pages of documents and nearly 4 million photos.

There are more than 40,000 items from the Bush presidency, ranging from the 9 mm Glock pistol that Saddam Hussein had when he was found in a spider hole in Iraq, to the bullhorn that Bush used when visiting ground zero after 9-11.

Other items include cowboy hats and boots, gold and silver swords, handmade quilts, diamond and sapphire jewelry given to the first lady by the king of Saudi Arabia, even a baseball bat signed by all the living members of the Hall of Fame in 2001.

Interactive displays will echo themes in the center: freedom, responsibility and opportunity, and compassion.

Museum exhibits will focus on key decisions during the Bush presidency, using interactive and digital displays to give visitors an idea of the issues facing the president and his reasoning.

"We will provide in-depth access to presidential materials and the presidential decision-making process, and we look forward to serving as an educational resource for this great community and the entire nation," said Alan Lowe, director of the museum and library.

Texas has three

Presidential libraries are where presidential papers, gifts, records and other artifacts are preserved.

They are administered by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Bush's will be the third in Texas, joining those for his father, George H.W. Bush, at Texas A&M University, and Lyndon B. Johnson, at the University of Texas at Austin.

The new center was sought by several Texas colleges, and it could boost the North Texas economy.

"Each [presidential library] is a small economic engine in and of itself, drawing tourists and donor dollars in substantial amounts," Sabato said.

Work has been under way to change the name of campus streets near the center to Bush Avenue.

And a legislative proposal looms in Austin to rename a seven-mile stretch of the highway that runs by the library -- Central Expressway -- the George W. Bush Expressway.

Sabato said Texas is unusually lucky to have three such libraries.

"Three presidential libraries is a lot for one state, but then Texas is special, right?" Sabato said.

"They don't call it a megastate for nothing."

Online: www.georgewbushlibrary.smu.edu

Nation & World Videos

Join the Discussion

The Wichita Eagle is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service