Chatting with Bush's Architect

In Robert Draper's new book about the Bush presidency, "Dead Certain," George W. Bush muses about the "fantastic Freedom Institute" he wants to establish after he leaves office, where young democratic leaders from around the world could gather. As the title of Draper's book implies about most things Bush, the institute isn't an idle dream but part of the plan for the Bush presidential library complex, to be built at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Last week New York architect Robert A.M. Stern was hired to design the "mini-campus," as he describes it, after beating out two Texas firms—and passing muster with the president at lunch on the ranch in Crawford. "You know, the president has a very good sense of humor," says Stern, "and I'm not bad myself, so it was basically who was overlooking whom. He said, 'Am I here to look you over, or are you here to look me over?' And I said, 'I think I'm here to be looked over'."

Stern, who'd been looked over earlier in the summer in an interview in Washington with the building committee, headed by Laura Bush, seems a perfect choice for the job. His firm—with 300 on staff—has vast experience in designing everything from neo-shingle-style mansions and resort hotels to courthouses, academic facilities and libraries. Stern is also dean of architecture at Bush's alma mater, Yale, and the author of a number of books of architectural history. He once advised Michael Eisner on architectural fantasies for the Disney company and served on the board of directors. Most important, Stern's design sympathies tend toward the conservative and traditional. "My reputation is for being respectful to historical architecture," says Stern—a key factor at SMU, where the campus is filled with neo-Georgian buildings. Though not a line of the design has yet been sketched, we can expect neo-Georgian for George W.

When word got out last year that SMU might become the home of the Bush library, a controversy broke out among the faculty—particularly over the politics of the Freedom Institute. While the exact boundaries of the library's site are still being negotiated, the complex is going to SMU. As with other presidential libraries, a private foundation (this one headed is by Bush's old friend and former commerce secretary Donald Evans) is raising the money and will build the facility—including the public museum, the archives for the presidential papers, accommodation for Bush (the Clinton Library in Little Rock also includes an apartment for Bill) and the institute. When complete, the museum/library will be operated by the National Archives, a federal agency—though the Freedom Institute, it appears, will be run by the private foundation.

For Stern politics aren't an issue. "I am building a library for the president of the United States," he says. "He represents us all." Though the architect refuses to say whether he voted for Bush—"I never discuss who I vote for with anyone"—he does say this: "I admire George Bush. I like him. I think a lot of the things he's done are great."

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Chatting with Bush's Architect | U.S.