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...