A location for the Obama presidential library? Why not Pullman?

September 7, 2010


(photo by Lee Bey)

Hawaii has begun lobbying for the future Barack Obama Presidential Library. They’ve got a Facebook page and a pretty cool website devoted to the cause, too.

No surprise, really. The president was born in Hawaii. University of Hawaii at Manoa Professor Robert Perkinson–the university is a prime mover behind the library bid–told television station KHON that Obama “has his deepest family ties here, more than anywhere. His parents met here, his sister has her degrees from here, his mother wrote her Ph.D here, his grandmother got her degree here, so this is really his deep home.”

Well, luana for a moment there, fella. Chicago has a bigger and more important claim. The 50th state birthed him, but Chicago’s South Side raised, shaped and launched him. President Ronald Reagan was born in Dixon, IL, but he made his bones in California–and that’s where his library resides. And although I bet the University of Chicago has a lock on getting an Obama presidential library on its Hyde Park campus, given his ties to the esteemed institution, I’d like to renew my call for a wildcard site: The vacant but marvelously restored Pullman Factory and Administration Building, a state-owned national landmark that sits on already-assembled near 111th and Cottage Grove. The site was nearly lost in an extra-alarm fire more than a decade ago.

Obama has ties to the area with his early days as a community organizer spent on the far South Side and meeting frequently at a McDonald’s just three blocks due south of the Pullman factory.

Why is a presidential library so important? The facilities contains papers, artifacts and scholarship of a president’s term. The Reagan Library has the Air Force One used by President Reagan during his term. I visited the Lyndon Johnson Library a few years ago and saw, among other things, the presidential limo and Lady Bird’s office. And they are huge projects. The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park, located in Little Rock, sits on 28 acres and cost $165 million. The George W. Bush Presidential Library designed by architect Robert A.M. Stern with landscape Michael Van Valkenberg will contain archives, museum and the Bush Institute–and will cost upwards of $200 million. The library will be in Texas–stands to reason–even though Bush was born in New Haven, CT.

For the Obama Presidential Library, the state could donate the Pullman factory site and require the preservation and reuse of the existing structure and grounds. (Click here to see an aerial shot of the site, then click on Google streetview and have a look around.)

The White House, meanwhile, has been publicly mum on the subject. It’s usually the second term when presidents began thinking of their libraries. An Obama library could be environmentally-green and, rather than an entirely new building, the facility would be the most visible adaptive-reuse project in the world, as it reuses the historic buildings while adding architecturally important new structures and open spaces. And it put Chicago’s Far South Side back on the world map, just as George Pullman did more than a century ago. And it would give the area its first significant economic engine since the steel mills and factories closed a generation or two ago.

Now that’s change.