George Washington University leaders announced Thursday that their institution will host the nation’s first research center devoted to Winston Churchill, the iconic Briton whose global legacy rivals that of Washington himself.

A National Churchill Library and Center will open in stages between 2013 and 2015 at GWU’s Gelman library, a central location in the District that could draw visiting students and Smithsonian tourists along with historians and “Churchillians” devoted to the late prime minister.

“Americans look to Winston Churchill as much more than a British politician,” said Lee Pollock, executive director of the Churchill Centre in Chicago, a group dedicated to preserving the Churchill legacy. “His associations with America are very deep and strong.”

The Churchill Centre has pledged $8 million for the GWU facility, which will house Churchill writings, research, memorabilia and modest exhibits in dedicated space on the main floor of the university library.

Of that sum, $2.5 million will create an endowed chair in the GWU history department for study of Churchill and 20th century British history. An additional $1 million will fund programs and exhibits for visitors. The eventual goal is to link the Churchill collection to research in law, international affairs, communication, public policy and other endeavors at the Foggy Bottom campus.

Winston Churchill smiles at the front door of 10 Downing Street, London in 1952. (The Associated Press)

“It’ll be a great thing to bring to Washington,” said Steven Knapp, president of GWU. “We’re building a lot of collections here that we think will make the university more of a magnet.”

Churchill led Britain during World War II. He is often cited as the greatest Briton of the past century, and indeed of any century. More has been written about him than about any American president, except perhaps Abraham Lincoln, Pollock said. Churchill’s stature as a world leader transcends political party; some current Republican political candidates have invoked his name on the campaign trail.

Churchill is generally credited with forging a unique and enduring friendship between Britain and the United States. He was a friend to several U.S. presidents and a frequent White House guest. Churchill was half-American and belonged to the Society of the Cincinnati, a Washington organization that celebrates Revolutionary War officers.

“Churchill was a great proponent of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship,’ as it was called, partly because he recognized, even in the 1920s and ’30s, that America was becoming a preeminent world power, and he knew that Great Britain, for its own survival and future, needed to be closely allied with the United States,” Pollock said.

The Washington installation will house an undetermined number of Churchill artifacts, many of them drawn from the personal collections of Churchill Centre members.

Churchill is among the most collected public figures, rivaled by Lincoln and Napoleon, Pollock said. He is the subject of hundreds of biographies and was a prolific writer.

“Several of our members have built up collections over several decades and have said to us, ‘At some point in our life, this collection should have a good, permanent home,’ ” Pollock said.

The new library will join a constellation of hallowed Churchill research sites: the Churchill War Rooms and Museum in London; Chartwell, the Churchill family home; and the Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College, part of the University of Cambridge.

Thursday’s announcement drew polite protests from the National Churchill Museum, a facility already in place on the campus of Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., the site of Churchill’s historic 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech. It, too, could stake a claim as the nation’s first Churchill research facility, although Pollock said the museum does not function as a comprehensive research center.

The Washington center will be “a wonderful addition to the Churchill world,” said Rob Havers, executive director of the Missouri museum.

The GWU center began as an idea hatched at dinner between Laurence Geller, chairman of the Churchill Centre, and former GWU president Stephen Trachtenberg in London a year ago, said university spokeswoman Candace Smith. Trachtenberg is “a big Churchillian” and a longtime supporter of the center, Pollock said.