Friday, November 22, 2013

How John F. Kennedy made history out of hodgepodge

Photo by mattxb, courtesy of Photoree.com
Warren Commission Exhibit #876, 1964.
What makes a building, monument, site or district "historic"? 

Old age? 

Ornamental beauty?

Architectural distinction? 

Old-world craftsmanship? 

"Starchitect" stamp and status? 

Use, occupancy or visitation by a celebrity, dignitary or luminary?

Relevance to the founding, growth or expansion of its city, state or nation?

Association with a pivotal or earth-shaking event in its country's history?

We'd certainly bolt to barricade the bulldozers if a structure, park or neighborhood that clearly
fell under any of those criteria were threatened with extinction. However, the mixed bag of bureaucracy blocks in the above images would have stood a fat chance at making our most- endangered list had they not "bore witness" to an event that falls squarely into the latter category — President John F. Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago.

 
Thirty years after that time-freezing tragedy made a momentary war zone out of Dallas's Dealey Plaza, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the commonplace city park a National Historic Landmark. This preserves the parklands, monuments, roads and buildings that are visible (or were potential assassins' lairs) from the X that marks the spot where JFK was hit as his open convertible motorcaded down Elm Street through the plaza.
 
Photo by Hobbes747, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Intended to immortalize the whole scene from a diversity of witness perspectives as a unilateral moment of mourning frozen in time, this unusual act of preservation gave new meaning to the word "historic." For the first time, the boring were as eligible as the beautiful for this distinction. Hence the Dealey diorama ranges from log-cabin to Victorian to industrial to Art Deco to modern, architecturally symbolizing the broad scope of peoples, classes and generations Kennedy could touch, talk to, vouch for and earn reverence (and tears) from despite his high-end Harvard hubris.
 
Courtesy of Dallas Municipal Archives
It also represents the "people's park" vision that businesswoman and philanthropist Sarah Horton Cockrell had for the land when she donated it for the plaza's construction as a Works Progress Administration civic improvement project in 1936.
 
From the AARC Public Digital Library, Warren Commission Hearings Volume XVI
Named for George Bannerman Dealey, a Dallas Morning News publisher and advocate for downtown Dallas's rejuvenation, the plaza forged a middle-of-the-road between fast-lane and slow-pace lifestyles. Four expanses of calming greenspace, dotted with monuments, peristyles and reflecting pools as visual focal points, softened the symmetrical convergence of Elm, Main and Commerce streets at the Triple Underpass railroad bridge. 

Dealey Plaza in the 1940s.
Heading into town, the three-pronged fork-split of West Commerce Street and the curving of Elm and Commerce forced the traffic to slow down as it approached downtown Dallas — a safety measure benefiting the plaza's pedestrians, picnickers and children at play. The tri-route also gave incomers their choice of city street to go along, depending on their destination or home location...

...and outgoers smooth highway access from several city points. This greatly reduced commuter traffic congestion by channeling it in three different directions, while enabling a wider spectrum of city dwellers faster route access. Thus the road/park design combined the graceful symmetry of both a highway cloverleaf and a French garden... 

...enriched with neo- Grecian peristyles, knee- walls, footpaths and oblong reflecting pools mirroring each other at West Commerce Street's bisection of the park. This offset the clamor of motor traffic with leisurely promenades to give pedestrians their turf at a busy crossroads.

This symmetry was slightly offset by an obelisk erected in 1940 to mark the site of Dallas's first Masonic Lodge and honor Dealey as a 33rd- degree Scottish Rite Mason. Crafted in the image of the crown of Egyptian god Osiris, the obelisk is topped by a tri-flame symbolizing the light of intellect.

Photo by Brodie319, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This inventive union of aesthetic and functional created a convenient, welcoming gateway to Dallas that accommo- dated both orderly commuter and leisurely pedestrian circulation as a safe greenspace and freeway for all. Yet this open plan also put a welcomed personage in a vulnerable spot by making ample room for multiple firing ranges from...

...the 'Grassy Knoll'...
 
Photo by Brodie319, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Conceived as a peaceful spot for picnics and relaxation from city/ commuter congestion, this lush green oasis allegedly became a foxhole for a "man with a badge" some claimed to be a conspirator in the Kennedy killing. The running knee-wall and the dense tree/hedge growth were certainly apt as furtive breeding ground for shady activity.

Simultaneously, the John Neely Bryan Memorial Pergola, crowning the crest of the knoll, became the perfect high vantage point for Abraham Zapruder to shoot his famed film of the bullet hitting Kennedy squarely in the head, providing hard evidence for the Warren Commission investigation of the assassination. The grassy knoll itself came in handy as a comforting cushion for the duck- and-cover and run-for-cover activity of spectators who feared they were in the line of fire.

Photo by stevehdc, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Erected earlier as a memorial to Dallas's founder, the Bryan Pergola was now reframed as an allusion to the curved, columned peristyles of the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, Kennedy's resting place. 

This would mislead subsequent generations into thinking the pergola had been built as a John F. Kennedy memorial in its own right. Yet it was now appropriate as one — its modern clean-lined design and concrete construction became a fitting tribute to JFK's "New Frontier" and forever-young image, in contrast to Arlington's old-hat classicism.


...the Texas School Book Depository...

Photo by James G. Howes, 1969.
This Romanesque Revival brick edifice was built in 1903 for the Southern Rock Island Plow Company on land once owned by John Neely Bryan. Texan petroleum producer and Civil Air Patrol co-founder David Harold Byrd acquired it in 1937, later leasing it for public school book storage. The slightly-above-average warehouse is forever imprinted with the memory of Lee Harvey Oswald lurking behind its rightmost window on the sixth floor, targeting his presidential prey in the shadows of the stacks.
 
Photo by Weatherdrew, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Now the Dallas County Administration Building, the structure has been meticulously restored to reflect its entire history, from plowman's factory to gunman's fortress. Apparently shorn of its cornice prior to the fatal event, it faithfully preserves this loss, as a memorial to the loss of a head of state with a bullet to the crown. 

Photo by Hobbes747, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Oswald's hideout is now the Sixth Floor Museum of exhibits on JFK's assassination. One must commend the building, not merely for its Roman arches, dentil brickwork and structurally expressive pilasters, but also for its adaptability to changing times and uses. It has housed plow parts, books, government offices and memorabilia (including Zapruder's film) in its 110-year lifespan.

After all, as Kennedy put it, "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."

...the Dal-Tex Building...

Photo courtesy of the FBI, 1963.
Architects James P. Hubbell and Herbert Miller Greene certainly didn't miss the future when they designed this austerely squarish brick warehouse (right) for the Kingman Texas Implement Company. Built a year before the Southern Rock Island building (left), it introduced Dallas to the progressive, anticlassical, vertical-emphasis styles of Louis Henri Sullivan's
From the collection of Jerome Puma
Photo by Jack Boucher, courtesy of
Historic American Buildings Survey
Chicago School (left: Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Missouri, 1891) and Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School (right: Larkin Building, Buffalo, New York, 1904-06, demolished 1950), while its next- door neighbor looked only to the past and present, doing as the Romans did and as everybody else was doing.

Photo by Mark Yearian, courtesy of Flickriver
Actually predating Wright's Larkin Building by two years (a New Frontier, indeed), Dal-Tex once contained offices and storage for its neighbor's competitor, the John Deere Plow Company, and later housed Abraham Zapruder's women's clothier, Jennifer Juniors, Inc. Which demonstrated the workplace efficiency of its Chicago style: its load-bearing steel frame — boldly expressed by prominent pilasters and recessed fenestration — yielded open floors and large, light-filling windows for maximum productivity, brighter inventory illumination ... and clearer lines of vision for possible assassins. It was one of the first buildings sealed off after Kennedy's death, due to witness reports of gunfire from its direction, and its direct alignment with the trajectory of a bullet that struck a curb and injured a bystander. A Mafia-linked criminal was detained in the building, too. 

In short, the Dal-Tex Building's sunny but susceptible corner location on the cusp of Dealey Plaza caught it in a crossfire of theories, whims and facts pertaining to JFK's assassination. Its accidental presence at the scene of the crime essentially thrust a new fame upon it, without which it might have been history by now.

...the Dallas County Records Building...

Too bad its nondescript 1955 annex, rather than its finely detailed 1928 Gothic progenitor (below), had to rear its face on Dealey Plaza and break Houston Street's historical continuum. But it does typify the type of modernism that was renewing urban America in JFK's time, so it bespeaks his urge to "begin anew" agreeably.

Photo courtesy of DallasCounty.org
It was also as suspect as its older cohorts in the web of intrigue behind his shooting. One story goes that the bullet that hit his skull in Zapruder's film had flown from his left rear side, thus originating from the roof of the annex (where a 30-06 shell casing was discovered during re-roofing in the early 1970s). It also serves as a reminder of what might have become of some of the older buildings had it not been for the landmark district designation (and, sadly, for its originator's death).

...the Dallas County Criminal Courts Building...

At least the white-bread blandness of the County Records Building Annex is opulently offset by the red-brick regality of the Criminal Courts Building next door. Designed by Texan architect H.A. Overbeck, it was built in 1913-15 as a combination criminal courthouse, county jail and sheriff's office, though its rich Renaissance Revival terra cotta and granite detailing elegantly masked the ominous nature of its use — possibly duping the newcomer into thinking the Ritz-Carlton Hotel had come to Dallas. But this masquerade couldn't cover up the building's inevitable embroilment in the Kennedy imbroglio. Many of its witnesses and detainees were interrogated here just after the assassination, and its East Courtroom was where nightclub owner Jack Ruby was tried for murdering Lee Harvey Oswald just before his planned transfer to the Criminal Courts Building on November 24. 

So much for putting on the Ritz — and finding out the truth.

...the Old Red Courthouse...

Photo by Joe Mabel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The architectural showpiece in the square, this Pecos red sandstone castle-cluster of arches, turrets, finials, gargoyles and Texas granite columns surrounding a grand central lantern tower bespoke the fortitude of law with its fortress-like predominance of its premises when built in 1890-92 from a Richardsonian Romanesque design by Max A. Orlopp, Jr. Though detached enough from the assassination site to be exempt from conspiracy turf, its flamboyant expression of the law's supremacy was no deterrent to the dirty work. Now the Old Red Museum, it is rife with exhibits and artifacts of Dallas County history, including John Neely Bryan's original plat of Dallas, Clyde Barrow's gun, and — naturally — Lee Harvey Oswald's handcuffs.

...the John Neely Bryan Cabin...

Photo by Andreas Praefcke, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
More evocative of Abraham Lincoln's humble beginnings than John F. Kennedy's moneyed ones, this little anomaly in Dealey Plaza is a 1935 reconstruction of the original home and trading post that Bryan had built in 1841 in this North Texas region. 

Bereft of half of his customers when a treaty expunged Native Americans from the territory, he decided a permanent settlement was more viable than a trading post, hence the founding of Dallas. The cabin was rechristened Dallas's first courthouse and post office by the Republic of Texas in 1843, setting the stage for future development patterns in its area. 

(And no, an assassin's refuge this wasn't, despite the diminutive stature that makes it so easy to overlook on a dense city street.)

...the George L. Allen, Sr., Courts Building...

Photo courtesy of DallasCounty.org
Under construction
as Dallas County Government Center
at the time of the assassination, Old Red's glass-and-steel antithesis missed its shot at smoking-gun suspicion by two years — though some of the key witnesses were workers on the construction site who had taken a lunch break to gaze at the President's motorcade through Dealey Plaza.


Though its purely functionalist design adds nothing to the architectural integrity of its district, it does add to the irony that a neighborhood full of courts and government offices could become a hotbed of crime targeting our highest elected official. As he'd say, "Life is unfair."

...the Memorial Plaza...

Photo by Scott Alan Hill, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It was also unfair that this bastion of banality apparently inspired the design for the adjacent John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Plaza in 1970. What was Philip Johnson, Master of the Glass House, thinking when he conceived Dallas's shrine to its befallen hero as a rigid square of windowless precast concrete column walls? 

Photo by Jim Bowen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
According to jfk.org, Johnson designed it as "a cenotaph, or 'open tomb,' that symbolizes the freedom of John F. Kennedy’s spirit," represented by the open top, the "floating" walls grounded by only eight of the 72 columns, and the row of lights that light up under the suspended columns at night to further the free- floating illusion. Johnson claimed the columns were bonded by a "magnetic force" representing the charismatic magnetism of Kennedy's personality.

"Magnetic" this is not. It's flat, dull and faceless, resembling a building under construction with its scaffolding under wrap, or an excavation site concealed from the public eye by "Post No Bills" plywood walls. Perhaps this conveys the "work in progress" Kennedy envisioned as his agenda in his inauguration speech...
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.com/Spondylolithesis
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
...or the "unfinished business" he left behind after about 1,000 days in office... but unconvincingly, and uninvitingly. Nor do the columns of "perfectly aligned" circles that "introduce the circular shape into the square architecture" help, except as frilly decoration meant to "round the corners" so the work isn't too austere. The inner sanctum for meditating on the man via the dark granite square gilded with his name makes us feel boxed-in, not free- spirited. Its symmetrical foursquare form is fixed and unmoving. This static, claustrophobic effect hardly evokes the dynamic man-on-the-move we knew JFK as, more aptly expressed by...


Photo by Eric Baetscher, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Free Documentation License
...his Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, I.M. Pei's masterpiece of clashing contrasts — solid/void, light/dark, acute/obtuse, sharp/ blunt, angle/curve — extolling Kennedy's courage to think outside the box, push change and progress, travel hither and yon, not sit still the way Johnson's prefab packing-crate does.

...the U.S. Post Office Terminal Annex...

A fitting name for this mail-sorting facility built in 1937-39 through the WPA, it solemnly anchors the southern edge of Dealey Plaza as the "terminal" of the park's space-framing panorama of the city's evolution from Log Cabin humility to Art Deco magnanimity — showing how far the post office had come in that time span. Designed by Lang & Witchell, this is Art Deco at its humblest, expressing the streamlined efficiency of America's then most advanced mail-processing system and the collective effort to get the job done, but with just enough ornament to give civic pride to its workers and its public. Especially inside, where murals by New Mexico artist Peter Hurd depicting pioneers erecting a log cabin (how appropriate for the area!) and an air-mail plane soaring over a West Texas farm ranch still grace the walls as homage to the artists put to work under FDR's New Deal.


Photo courtesy of the Dallas Morning News
On its site stood the home of Alexander Cockrell, who bought the land from John Neely Bryan in the 1850s. The house became a base for Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill, who led up to 450 men (including Jesse James) in an 1863 raid on antislavery stronghold Lawrence, Kansas — an omen of the conspiracy that was to subdue a civil rights advocate 100 years later...
 
Photo courtesy of the U.S. General Services Administration
...and, yes, the Terminal Annex was inevitably entangled in the assassination. Postmaster Harry D. Holmes observed it from his fifth-floor office there through a pair of binoculars, thus became a key witness in the Warren Commission's investigation. Which demonstrated the advantage of siting the building in full view of Dealey Plaza. To add to the intrigue, Lee Harvey Oswald rented a P.O. box in there. (For more information on the Terminal Annex, read Noah Jeppson's article "Terminal Annex and its Murals" in Unvisited Dallas.)

...the Obelisk...

Yes, that, too, took on new meaning after the assassination. A marble knee-wall behind the monument now bears a plaque that reads as follows:
On November 22, 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth President of the United States, visited Dallas. A presidential parade traveled north on Houston Street to Elm Street and west on Elm Street. As the parade continued on Elm Street at 12:30 p.m., rifle shots wounded the President and Texas Governor John Connally.
Findings of the Warren Commission indicated that the rifle shots were fired from a sixth floor window near the southeast corner of the Texas School Book Depository, Elm and Houston, a block north of this marker.
President Kennedy expired at Parkland Hospital at 1:00 p.m. The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Plaza is nearby, bounded by Main, Record, Market, and Commerce streets.
Now the obelisk is the next thing after the Bryan Pergola to make the Dallas newcomer or greenhorn tourist think it was erected as the city's official memorial to President Kennedy, despite the plaque's clarification of the real memorial's location. And no wonder. The obelisk form recalls the Washington Monument, a familiar presidential shrine. The crowning flame brings JFK's Eternal Flame at Arlington National Cemetery to mind. The rustication of the main shaft could represent the building blocks by which Kennedy attempted to build a better future for his country.

...the Limo...

Penn Jones Photographs. Baylor University Collections of Political Materials, Waco, Texas
Yes, there's even a theory that JFK's motorcade limousine driver fired the final shot. But, whether or not they were bullet-sources, all structures and spaces in and around Dealey Plaza have cried out, "Kennedy!" ever since that fateful day of November 22, 1963, as if it was meant to happen there. They now have a clearer, sharper architectural distinction, whether magnificent or mediocre.

Archival photo by Mary Moorman
They bespeak the whereabouts of assassins, the presence of witnesses, and the absence of government officials that should have been the President's protectors, since many of their vessels were built to uphold the law. Dealey's architectural variety is unified and preserved in a frozen tableau of a history-making event that united diverse people to mourn their leader's loss in unison.

...the Plaza.

Dealey Plaza from the air, c. 1967.
Thus Dealey Plaza exemplifies the vision JFK expressed in his Amherst College speech of Oct. 26, 1963: "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for the future."
 
Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Power and pallor in presidential libraries and museums — Part III

Rustic Roosevelt
 
Unlike the Hooverville humbug of his predecessor's, Franklin D. Roosevelt enriched his own Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., with a humble country charm.

Preliminary sketch by Franklin D. Roosevelt of his own presidential library and museum.
Following the examples of George Washington's Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Roosevelt designed his own digs (right), exercising complete creative control over them for his use as well as the public's — unlike his successor, who passed the buck to an architect and disliked the end result (see below).
 
President Roosevelt dedicates his museum on June 30, 1941.
Working closely with Philadelphia builder John McShain, FDR fashioned a Hudson Valley fieldstone structure with a stick- post porch and a steep slate gable roof. Classic Dutch Colonial cottage and farmhouse features fused into a homey haven for his "Fireside Chats." The building frames a forecourt on three sides, adding to the feel-at- home intimacy he intended for his library-museum, as well as...
 
...his Fireside Chats, which he often broadcast from his library's study over the course of World War II, keeping listeners abreast of the war's progress, announcing war loan drives, and presenting peace plans. The library's house-like feel set the tone for these intimate moments with his fellow citizens, assuring them, indeed, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." 
Photo by Wallygva, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
   
FDR also spent many hours in the study sorting and classifying his records and collections from his terms as New York state senator and governor, assistant Navy secretary and President. Thus he began the presidential tradition of erecting a special facility for the archiving of a president's papers and public display of his era's memorabilia.

The trouble with Harry
 
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
But the building itself didn't begin a better presidential center construction tradition — in part because modern architecture was firming its foothold in the American landscape with megablock office and apartment complexes, Victor Gruen shopping malls, government bureaucracy buildings and other pale pantheons of postwar prosperity. 
 
Photo courtesy of the National Archives
Following suit in 1957 was the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, located in Independence, Missouri, the 33rd president's hometown. It was designed by Edward F. Nield, one of the architects of Truman's White House gut-rehab, who died midway through the museum's schematic design process.
   
Which may partially explain why this structure is, indeed, as dead-looking as a U.S. Army base or the Pentagon, hence as cold as the comfort Truman took in his heinous decisions to H-bomb Hiroshima, nuke Nagasaki, and kick off the Cold War with the Korean Conflict.
 
Photo by Nationalparks, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Displeased with the design himself, Truman had wanted his library to resemble the 1893 farmhouse of his grandfather, Solomon Young, in Grandview, Mo., where Truman lived and worked the farm from 1906-1917. Had the buck stopped here, it would have continued the "historic home" approach to presidential library design his predecessor had started.
 
Determined to be as old-hat as his trademark haberdashery, Truman set up a working office in the library to supervise its daily operations and furnished it FDR-style with classic bookcases and lights, paneled doors, a crown molding, a vintage desk and world globe, and other artifacts of a passing era. Here he wrote articles, letters, and his memoir, Mr. Citizen.  

Eisenhower eye-to-eye

Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were so at odds with each other that President Eisenhower not only skipped Truman's library dedication but also urged Herbert Hoover to do the same. (Hoover went anyway; "one of the important jobs of our exclusive trade union is preserving libraries," as he told Truman.)
 
When time tempered those tensions after Ike left office, he visited Truman's library to get inspiration for his own in Abilene, Kansas (and no wonder: Truman's was the first built under the 1955 Presidential Library Act, thus a model for others). The two talked in Truman's working office (where else?) and toured the facility...
 
...and Eisenhower ended up with a Presidential Library and Museum much like his rival's! The six-column portico entry, the land-grabbing layout, the muted modernism, the plain-Jane façade, the sprawling landscape leading to the main attraction — all there! 
 
One difference, though: Ike's library (above, left) and museum (above, right) are in separate structures facing each other across the Eisenhower Center campus, each almost a mirror-image of the other. This could symbolize Ike and Tru seeing eye-to-eye on something...
 
...namely efficient presidential library/ museum design for the archiving and public access of presidential paraphernalia for posterity — not to mention the equally bland, banal boxes that enclose the Truman show and the Eisenhower eyeful. Which give us little more reason to like Ike than to be wild about Harry...
 
Photo by Scott Catron, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
...except for the Eisenhower Center's incorporation of the house where Ike lived from age 8 until he enrolled at West Point Military Academy in 1911, as a first step toward the Five-Star General status he earned in World War II. (Then he became president of Columbia University, where he signed my father's Master's Degree in philosophy and theology.)
 
Photo by Robert E. Nylund, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Yet the warmth of the home's 1889 Italianate Victorian architecture and David & Ida Eisenhower's preserved interior furnishings and finishes clashes with the coldness of the 1962 modern library-museum, as if contrasting the president's personality polarities: Ike the People-to-People person vs. Ike the Cold Warrior.
 
Photo by R.D. Smith, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
His younger brother was given a warmer, statelier treatment when the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, designed by Sill, Buckler & Fenhagen (now Ayers Saint Gross) was dedicated in 1964 as the principal research library of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Here, Milton was president in 1956-67 and 1971-72, after being prez of Pennsylvania State and Kansas State universities. 
 
The glazed marble portico gives an obligatory nod to his presidential elder's libes. But the Georgian Revival brick facade, apron panels, sash windows and cornice encloak it with the scholastic distinction of the rest of the campus, honoring Milton's decision to stay out of Brother Ike's war zones and keep the academic peace.  

Kennedy for me!
 
Photo by Eric Baetscher, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
That slogan from one of John F. Kennedy's campaign commercials expresses my feelings about his Presidential Library and Museum, a modernist masterpiece of geometric form and spatial function that explodes contrasting shapes into space with power, pomp and panache. 

Photo courtesy of the National Archives
This sculptural innovation, coupled with its water frontage at Columbia Point in Dorchester, Mass., boldly articulates the "voyage of discovery" and "quest for excellence that inspired universal trust and faith" Sen. Edward Kennedy said of his brother's life at the building's dedication in 1979. Its water-edge sky-reach also valiantly evokes JFK's "New Frontier" philosophy and his fulfilled promise to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s.

Architect I.M. Pei's clashing contrasts of curve and line, flat plane and sinuous chiaroscuro, white solid (concrete) and dark void (tinted glass) make the Eisenhower Center's faceless uniformity look passé, just as Kennedy's futuristic initiatives (Alliance for Progress, Food for Peace, New Frontier, Peace Corps, Physical Fitness Program) made Ike's moderate conservatism a distant memory. Furthermore, the incompatibility of the Kennedy Library's explosive polygon and the Eisenhower Center's stationary boxes jarringly contrasts JFK's dynamic impulse for progress ("It's time to get this country moving again") with Ike's static maintenance of the status quo ("I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it").

In this way the JFK Library's every-which-way erraticism also alludes to Kennedy's reckless, inept foreign policy, from the botched Bay of Pigs invasion to the senseless start of the Vietnam War, as opposed to the keeper-of-the-peace image Eisenhower was after ("Beware of the military industrial complex"), expressed by the quietude of his center complex. Yet the JFK library's juxtaposition of dark and light, void and solid, window and wall could also symbolize the mitigation and reconciliation of Soviet-American tensions with which Kennedy cooled the Cuban Missile Crisis through "never fearing to negotiate" (true to his inaugural speech) and owning up to his Bay of Pigs blunder. The civil rights movements brewing in his time, too, are nobly noted here in the union of black and white on the outside.

Inside, it's a different story. When we step into the main pavilion, the dark of the glass gives way to the light of the sun, the loft of the clouds, the blue of the sea and sky, and the green of the grass. This outside-the-box effect evokes the bright, shining future attained through social, environmental and scientific advancement and enlightenment Kennedy and his followers hoped for through faith in science and technology as prime movers — much as how Paul the Apostle put it in his First Epistle to the Corinthians in the Holy Bible's New Testament:
For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.  — I Corinthians 13:12-13
The tensile web of steel tubing does denote technology's power to accomplish great things, from putting a man on the moon to our present- day cyberspace ventures. Technology's progression of architecture itself is articulated by the concave curve stack — a slight stealing from the spiral ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York.


Photo courtesy of the National Archives
Further inside, it's back to the historical hokum of Hooverville and Lincolnland. In the "White House Years" exhibit, that venerated villa's crown moldings, crystal chandeliers, marble floors, paneled wainscoting, crowned pilasters, barrel-vaulted ceiling and, yes, red carpet force us to feel Kennedy's presence in the palace rather than allow us to imagine his vision in the pavilion.


Photo courtesy of the National Archives
As does the Oval Office replica, the tourist-tempting must-have for every prez museum. At least this one's more creative, backdropping the bill-signing desk with a vintage TV studio camera display — a testament to Kennedy's use of the new television technology to sharpen his image, spread his message, and score points against Nixon in the first televised presidential debate.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives
But such a classical circus has no place in such a model of modern innovation (especially not here: cornices, chair rails, milled frames, and paneled wainscoting and reveals don't mesh with the Space Race exhibit or flat-screen TV). Tacky traditionalism disrupts the adventure of quirky angles, sudden turns, clean lines, plain planes and atrial spaces the exterior makes us anticipate, by appearing more false in comparison.


Photo courtesy of the National Archives
Chermayeff & Geismar Associates of New York, a modernist pioneer like I.M. Pei, designed the original exhibit spaces to take a back seat to the memorabilia, paraphernalia, reproductions and recreations of key Kennedy events the spaces were to present. This let the content take the lead without decorative diversions, in proper modern art museum form.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives
The décor came with Einhorn Yaffee Prescott's 1990s addition, perhaps to draw more crowds with a "White House experience." But this retro fakery keeps us from experiencing the JFK Museum as a total architectural entity, a youthfully exuberant symbol of the faith in the future for which we know its namesake.

Joyless Johnson

For details, see Part IV of this post, soon to come...