The Other Presidential Libraries
There Were No Protests in Abilene, Independence or West Branch
Feelings run high about the John F. Kennedy Library's imminent arrival in Harvard Square. Should it be built; shouldn't it? All parts of it? For what reasons? An examination of the way in which three of the five presidential libraries already in operation have developed may help clarify local library issues.
Late this summer I visited the Truman, Eisenhower, and Hoover libraries. These midwestern facilities differ in setting and mood and none is located in a congested urban area. But they all suggest what a presidential library may mean for Cambridge.
One soon becomes aware that a presidential library is more than its name implies. It is a research facility and repository for a president's papers and associated archival material. It fulfills important historical and scholarly functions, and appropriately, is open only to qualified researchers. What is popularly thought of as a presidential library is, in fact, a presidential museum. These adjuncts of presidential libraries are not just minor display areas "open to the public." They are major tourist attractions of undoubted interest and growing appeal.
The Harry S. Truman Library (library and museum, that is) occupies a single large and dignified U-shaped building on a beautifully landscaped tract of 14 acres in Independence, Missouri--Truman's hometown. Independence was a boom town in the first half of the 19th century, one of the major outfitting centers for wagon trains heading west. By the turn of the century, it had become an agricultural and livestock center. Today, although Independence is steadily being pulled into the vortex of metropolitan Kansas City, its center remains a prosperous, pleasant county seat.
The Truman Library, a few miles to the north of Interstate 70, is on Route 24, one of those now typical four-lane highways which take dreary second place to limited-access throughways. New motels, advertising their accessibility to the library, cluster near interstate exists--Hilton, Sheraton, Ramada, Howard Johnson, Travel Lodge, and Holiday Inn. As one leaves the throughway and approaches The Truman Library, Route 24 is lined with used car lots, supermarkets, gas stations, fast food stores, retail outlets, and light industry. The library and the pleasant municipal park across the highway make a striking contrast.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Center is in Abilene, a town of 7000 in the plains of central Kansas. A 19th century railroad terminus for huge numbers of cattle being driven from the open range in Texas, Abilene was a classic frontier town. Wild Bill Hickok was once marshall there.
Gradually, Abilene changed to a slow-paced community catering mostly to retired farmers. Until the Eisenhower Center was built, "Abilene wasn't going anywhere," as a local motel owner put it. Today the sign at the city limits reads: WELCOME TO ABILENE, MIDWEST TOURIST CAPITAL, EISENHOWER CENTER TWO MILES.
"That Eisenhower Center's sure made a difference," a waitress told me. "Seems like all our customers are going there."
To get to the Eisenhower Center, I left Interstate 70 just north of Abilene. It was immediately clear that this was not the approach to just any small rural town in sparsely populated central Kansas. The road looked more like a thoroughfare in metropolitan Kansas City. Neon signs, one after the other, line both sides of the road for a mile. Huge street lights make a continuous archway of glaring light until at last the eating places, supermarkets, liquor stores, motels, and gas stations give way to the still quiet residential section and the original business district. Near the old railroad station, on the southern edge of Abilene, farm equipment is displayed outdoors. The Eisenhower Center is just across the railroad tracks.
"Center" is an appropriate word to describe the 20-acre site. Like a shopping center, there are a number of parts to it. The library and the museum are in separate buildings. Eisenhower's boyhood home has been restored. The former president and his infant first born son are buried in the chapel-like Place of Meditation. In a focal arc, five large Memorial Pylons are dedicated to Eisenhower's parents, the six Eisenhower brothers, members of the armed services, democracy, and the home where the president spent his childhood. And still the Center grows; a large new visitors' reception facility is under construction.
An assortment of tourist developments has mushroomed on adjacent land. Across from the main entrance to the center is the Greyhound Hall of Fame--honoring not buses, but dogs; more of these racers are bred in Kansas than any other state. At the back of the site are the Dickinson County Historical Museum, the Museum of Independent Telephony, and Sculpture Hall. ("Thirtv-one years of free-hand carvings. 1917 Model T Roadster was over two years in the making. Weighs over 200 pounds. Water in the radiator. Admission $1.25--10 or more, $1.00. Bus drivers and sponsors free.")
To the south are the Hall of Generals Wax Museum and the new Old Abilene Town, "an authentic replica of the cattle capital as it was during its roaring hey-days..." As part of this enterprise, a stage coach filled with paying tourists plies up and down the dirt road along the back of the Library building. Just behind the wax museum is a Micro Zoo ("100's of Microscopic Animals and Plants. Projected Alive...A Living Educational Exhibit"). Not surprisingly, there are several fast food stores. And two private campgrounds ("Feel free to inspect our restrooms"). In the campground I looked over, 33 Winnebago-type mobile homes were registered.
Finally, in this thriving tourist area, is the Chisholm Trail Souvenir Shop. Here in "Kansas's Largest Souvenir Shop," I counted 94 kinds of things marked Eisenhower Center and/or Abilene, Kansas. Pillow covers, pencil sets, and toy cars were not surprises. Toothpick holders and babies training pants were.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library is on the Hoover Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa, where Herbert Hoover was born in 1874, one of three children of the village blacksmith. This eastern part of Iowa is lovely, rolling, fertile farm country, and the historic site itself is a beautifully maintained 180 acre tract with open land, trees, and a meandering stream. The gravesites of Herbert Hoover and his wife, simple granite monuments, are on a wooded knoll. The village of West Branch, with a population of only 1300, seems to merge into the park-like site.
The historic site is under the supervision of the National Park Service, which is creating a Sturbridge Village-like community reminiscent of the West Branch of Hoover's boyhood. Done with imagination and taste, the settlement includes the tiny, whitewashed, two-room house where Hoover was born; a Quaker Meeting House; and a functioning blacksmith shop. Recently the government bought ten little period houses where Park personnel now live. A schoolhouse is soon to be added, and there are plans for putting into operation a working replica of a 19th century farm. Even though many of the original commercial buildings of West Branch itself now cater to tourists, the area as a whole looks much as it must have in Hoover's youth.
The library and the museum are in a low stone building set back from the reconstructed village, accessible yet surprisingly in no way insistent or obtrusively out of character. Since highway signs direct one only to "The Hoover Library," the village at the Historic Site comes as a happy dividend and adds a new dimension to the museum aspect of a presidential facility.
Because presidential library/museums are almost always referred to just as "libraries," many visitors are confused. At the Truman Library, for instance, although one building houses both facilities, visitors must be enterprising even to find the library, which is not open to the public in any case. Still, they do look--but usually just to see "those people" who work with books and papers. "The tourists don't want to do research," was the comment of a former member of the museum staff, "they just really want to see other people doing it."
It was only as a member of the Harvard Square Development Task Force that I was given permission to see the archival and research sections of the Harry S. Truman Library. There I saw attractive well-equipped offices for the staff. (The private office of ex-President Truman is sealed while his estate is being probated.) The reading room for visiting scholars is large and comfortable. A big, specially-equipped area on two floors is filled with stacks for the library's estimated eight million papers.
Providing for cars and other motor vehicles is obviously an important consideration at each of the presidential facilities I visited. The original provisions have just as obviously proved inadequate. Today, there are three public parking lots at the Truman Library--two of them added since the library opened. There are three lots for the Hoover Historic Site. The two at the Eisenhower Center are clearly over-taxed; a third lot for 300 cars is currently under construction. Each of the three library/museums has a special area designated for what the sign at the Truman Library calls "Buses, Trucks, Campers, Trailers, Motor-cycles." A guard told me, "even one of these things can cause real trouble in a regular lot." Elaborate homes-on-wheels, a substantial percentage carrying or towing cars, beach buggies, bicycles, motorcycles, or boats--are regularly among the vehicles Americans travel in. And travel to the libraries is certainly something Americans do. The day I was at the Truman Library there were cars--or whatever!--from 29 states; at the Eisenhower Center, from 21 states.
There is something for everyone in the programs and displays at presidential museums. As an introduction to the Truman museum, a documentary movie called, "For All the People," is shown in the 251 seat auditorium. It describes the facility as "a storehouse for the imagination...with various incongruous elements of history from which our lives are built." Museum objects include documents, photographs, portraits, cartoons, murals, uniforms, flags, weapons, table services, Bibles, furniture, cars, coins, ship models, and gifts to the Trumans from all over the world. Incongruous indeed! A visitor can hardly fail to find at least one link to his own experience.
While the museums are obviously built to honor particular men who have been presidents of the United States, the overall impression is neither biographical nor chronological. In many instances the idea of the presidency is actually used only as a springboard to exhibit themes of possible intrinsic interest, but certainly with only marginal relevance to the president in question. At the Hoover Museum one of the exhibits displays K'ang Hsi and Ming porcelains collected by Mrs. Hoover between 1899 and 1901 when Hoover, an engineer, (with what a government brochure calls "an international reputation as a `doctor of sick mines'") worked in China. At Independence, Truman's Masonic memorabilia are displayed with pictures of 14 other presidents who have been Masons. In the Eisenhower Museum the large collection of World War II weaponry and a sample of moon rock from the Apollo 12 mission are focal displays. In all of the museums, where trained specialists continually up-date and replace exhibits, there is a growing emphasis on an interpretative presentation of material rather than the mere display of objects. In the Truman museum an exciting exhibit--The Whistlestop Campaign of 1948--is an example of this new trend.
Presidential library/museums are built originally with private funds. They are then turned over to the General Services Administration, a federal agency mandated to maintain and operate them. My impression was that the GSA puts a high priority on visitor convenience and good will. The consistently solicitous attitude of employees was striking. One security guard explained, "The boss always reminds us--be as nice as you can to everyone--they're usually cranky from traveling." Visitor convenience is not just a matter of attitude, however. It is significantly a matter of physical plant.
Since being turned over to the government for operation, each of these three library/museums has increased its land area, its acquisitions, and the size of its physical facilities. This pattern of growth and change is dramatically apparent at the Eisenhower Center. The museum has doubled from its original size. Its collection of objects and artifacts increased from 5000 to 22,000 items. Completely new exhibits were installed between 1969 and 1971 and plans made to renew them on a rotating basis each year. Obsolecence never diminishes the appeal of a presidential museum; out-dated exhibits can-- and are--replaced to illustrate a seemingly limitless range of subjects. The new visitors reception center will have an auditorium for 300 people. There is already an auditorium in the library building where a movie "A Place in History" is shown eight times a day. Three hundred new parking places are being provided. To make room for these new additions, the Lincoln School building and two acres of land were purchased from the city by the GSA.
Growth is built into the very fabric of a presidential museum; guaranteed long-term public financing, favored access to new display materials, and bureaucratic responsiveness to the public forestall any loss of momentum and appeal. Associated with this primary growth is the continuing secondary development pattern on the periphery of the sites themselves. This commercial activity is an inevitable response to visitors' needs and public taste.
And how many people come to these museums and libraries? In any single year, scholars using a presidential library are counted by the hundreds; tourists visiting an associated presidential museum are counted by the hundreds of thousands. The library alone has relatively little impact on the surrounding community. But what would be the effect on an already congested area of a library and museum?
Martha S. Lawrence is the Neighborhood Ten representative on the Harvard Square Development Task Force.