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Monument to myself: Presidential libraries in the USA

As the competition to host Barack Obama’s presidential library hots up, we look back over the history of this very American institution

The University of Hawaii has revealed a proposal by Norwegian/American practice Snøhetta for a library dedicated to memorialising the presidency of Barack Obama, one of four institutions competing for the honour. Another of these, the University of Chicago, has caused an outcry by proposing to annex part of that city’s historic Washington Park for the same purpose. This rigmarole may seem strange to non-Americans, but it has a long history; in Ancient Rome it was considered standard practice, if not beyond reproach, for reigning emperors to prepare lavish monuments for themselves. They knew that history is fickle, and having seen the reputations of their predecessors traduced and their monuments despoiled − indeed, having often instigated this process of damnatio memoriae themselves − they knew that if you want mourning done properly, you’ve got to do it yourself.

Since the Second World War, a similar process of auto-memorialisation has been institutionalised in the USA. Fate can be even crueller for today’s erstwhile leaders of the universe who, unlike the Romans, must endure while their legacies do not; rarely comes a kind knife through the toga to end the lingering reputational death of a Nixon or − even worse − the obscurity of a Ford. However, in this empire that dare not speak its name, the first president to build his own shrine decided to clothe the enterprise as a memorial library − so much more tasteful than a mausoleum, though many of these institutions do in fact double as tombs. So it was to the glory of the republic and the benefit of future generations that Franklin Roosevelt left his papers to the nation, in a domestically scaled, privately funded building on his estate in Hyde Park, New York. When Harry Truman chose to follow suit in the 1950s, Congress passed the Presidential Library Act, and since then each president has established his own monument, with an initial endowment of private capital but with the running costs to be borne by the National Archives.

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The FDR library resembles a colonial-era mano house

The architecture of these institutions varies significantly in style; none is especially distinguished, but the mode in which departed leaders of the free world choose to be memorialised is instructive nonetheless. Roosevelt’s library resembles a colonial-era manor house, whence he somewhat creepily chose to deliver some of his fireside chats − a living voice emanating from the tomb. Successive incumbents have built with increasing vastness and expense, despite congressional attempts to rein them in, as the Augustinian modesty of FDR gave way to Neronian folie de grandeur. JFK has a collision of geometric solids in concrete and smoked glass, designed by IM Pei (whose services were enlisted by Jackie Onassis), located on a former rubbish tip; LBJ has a grandiose travertine monolith by Gordon Bunshaft; and Clinton a huge High-Tech groundscraper cantilevered over the Arkansas River. The latter building cost 165 million dollars, 10 million of which came in tribute from the Saudis. Services rendered are not forgotten, even in the dustier outposts of the imperium.

The more conservative go for Classical motifs. Truman and Eisenhower have porticoes in that elemental antique mode beloved of totalitarian dictators, Nixon has a Roman villa complete with a pool, while Reagan has a vast Italianate villa, covering 22,600 square metres − the repository of (among other items) a genuine Irish pub that he and Nancy had visited on a trip to the Old Country, transported and reassembled in a palazzoid hangar beside Air Force One. George Bush Sr commissioned an ersatz Jeffersonian rotunda, as if his dynasty’s nadir actually represented a return to the zenith of American civilisation, and his son (who managed to raise 500 million dollars for his library) has another stripped Classical portico; inside there is a bronze statue of his terriers, as well as a selection of his fascinating art brut paintings. I wonder if Nero was a better lyre player.

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A bronze statue of George W Bush’s Scottie dogs Barney and Ms Beazley is proudly displayed in his presidential library in Dallas

‘Rarely comes a kind knife through the toga to end the lingering reputational death of a Nixon, or even worse, the obscurity of a Ford’

The question of what these buildings are actually for is another one entirely. In recent cases, the archival function has tended to be neglected − there is a backlog of requests dating back several years to see papers from the three most recent institutions. Instead, there is a focus on exhibitions intended to burnish the legacy while pulling in the punters. Some have to work harder at this than others; the crowds certainly don’t flock to Nixon’s mausoleum. However, the more popular ones − especially those of Reagan, Clinton and Kennedy − do attract a steady flow of tourists, and the promise of a ‘mausoleum effect’ on the local economy has sometimes been invoked in order to persuade donors and recalcitrant neighbours.

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Snøhetta’s design for Obama’s presidential library, as proposed by the University of Hawaii

Perhaps this possibility was not entirely forgotten by the four universities currently bidding to host Obama’s library. In December, the University of Hawaii revealed not one but three designs for the library, including the one by Snøhetta, architects of Oslo’s opera house, which is claimed to be inspired by coral. ‘Much like the polyp’, their press release tenuously explains, ‘the Center has the unique opportunity to create a new environment that encourages assembly and creates shared community resources.’ The University of Illinois in Chicago is also competing for the prize. Meanwhile, it has been rumoured that the President himself has a preference for the work of David Adjaye (though the architect denies all knowledge). But it is the two enormously wealthy private universities taking part that have garnered most of the publicity − not least because both have taken the extraordinary tack, given that the brief specifically mandated against this, of proposing sites that do not belong to them: the University of Chicago suggests annexing part of Washington Park, designed by the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, for the purpose, and Columbia University intends to incorporate the library into its controversial expansion into West Harlem.

Observers of a cynical bent might conceivably misconstrue this noble gesture as an attempt to ‘black-wash’ a project that has often been accused of land-grabbing from a predominantly Hispanic and Afro-American neighbourhood for the benefit of rich white kids. You could say the same of the University of Chicago’s plan. If the calumny were true, it would make either of these the perfect memorial for a president who, despite the fondest (and I use that word in its Shakespearean sense) hopes that his mere existence might somehow heal the wounds caused by centuries of racism, has presided over a period of extreme brutality directed at people of colour, both at home and abroad.

The winner will be announced in March.

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