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Clinton Library Builds Bridges

Complex Connects and Transforms a Little Rock Wasteland

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2004; Page C01

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The party's over. Gone are the crowds that came last week to celebrate the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library.

Gone, too, are the tents, fences, bleachers and banners that obscured a central fact: This complex of buildings and their sculpted landscape setting together comprise a splendid, smart and lasting work of art.

From certain points the library resembles a great ship preparing to propel itself across the Arkansas River. A fountain spreads before it, and in the distance is an old, rusty bridge, a relic from Little Rock's days as a railway hub. (Above Photos Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

_____From Little Rock_____
The Clinton Library Dedication Photo Gallery: Clinton's presidential center is designed to evoke a "Bridge to the 21st Century," the metaphor Clinton invoked during his 1996 reelection drive.
Former President Clinton
President Bush
Former President Bush
Former President Carter

Never mind the snide comparisons to mobile homes and boxcars that came the main building's way. Eventually, these will be absorbed into the affectionate lore this place will attract as it proves its usefulness and appeal. And, actually, the boxcar metaphor is quite fitting.

The most prominent and largest building of the three in the complex -- the one you see when speeding by on Interstate 30 or when making the pleasant 10-minute walk from downtown -- does have the surreal proportions of a freight car on an immense imaginary train.

It is a 420-foot-long rectangular container sheathed on one long side with 5-by-10-foot panels of silvery double-pane glass and on the other with burnished aluminum. Enormous steel trusses echo those of a nearby railroad bridge. The 90-foot-cantilevers at each end give the building a powerful horizontal thrust so that, from certain points of view, it also resembles a great ship preparing to propel itself across the Arkansas River.

In a sense, this building is the 21st-century equivalent of that rusting old railroad bridge, an abandoned relic of Little Rock's days as a railway hub. Like those of the bridge, its structural forces are (largely) exposed. Its metal and glass finishes are elegant updates of the bridge's raw industrial vernacular. As set off by the grassy mounds of the new landscape, these two structures make a pleasing, rather romantic pair.

It hardly comes as a surprise, then, to learn that the bridge motif has become the official theme of the Clinton complex. The words of the 42nd president's well-known appeal, "Let us resolve to build a bridge to the 21st century," will be engraved in large letters on the exterior stone and glass of a connecting link between parts of the compound.

This is, to be sure, a thematic oversimplification. It underlines the more theatrical, theme-parky ambiance of a complex in which, besides serious research material, all sorts of presidential stuff is on display -- gilded gifts, happenstance mementos, scores of photographs and a full-scale reproduction of the White House Oval Office.

(Fortunately, someone had the merciful good sense to insist that the Clinton Museum Store -- a souvenir stopover complete with a Socks the cat cocktail purse -- be located off-site rather than in the spacious room designed for it inside the center. The store was launched last week in a renovated 19th-century building downtown, where it complements a newly flourishing retail and restaurant district.)

The official displays of Clintoniana are housed in the elegant big boxcar. This is where casual tourists will head when visiting the Clinton Presidential Center. It was the former president's persistent goal, say architects involved in the project, that the new complex lure tourists as well as scholars to Little Rock. In terms of economic development, think of it as the Little Rock equivalent of Washington's MCI Center.

In addition to the exhibition of presidential memorabilia (designed by Ralph Apelbaum Associates of New York), the interior of the building offers its own rewards. The crisply engineered connections between glass and metal, for instance, are a satisfying sight. Even more so are vivid views of the river, the old bridge and the new landscape.

Scholars, of course, will go directly to the presidential archive, a 70,000-square-foot "bunker," as described by architect Richard M. Olcott of Polshek Partnership Architects, the New York firm that was the lead designer of the complex. Olcott was referring to the building's security-driven structural strength, but on the surface it's simply a rectangular box wrapped in a diaphanous screen of corrugated, perforated metal.

Aspiring scholars and public servants will head to Choctaw Station, an attractively refurbished 19th-century railroad terminal that houses the Clinton School of Public Service, a graduate program affiliated with the University of Arkansas. The old station also serves as headquarters of the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, the institution that raised $165 million to pay for the complex. (The Little Rock firm of Polk Stanley Rowland Curzon Porter Architects took the design lead for this renovation.)

Having three pieces rather than one served the Polshek Partnership well by removing the need to create a single, all-inclusive symbolic image. With Olcott and James S. Polshek as heads of the design team, the architects experimented with different arrangements before settling on what came to be known as "the bridge" alternative.

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