What’s That Building? Why This Hoffman Estates Warehouse Stores Barack Obama’s Presidential Papers

A tan building with an arched doorway with a black parking lot stretching out in front of it
The front entrance to the facility that temporarily houses the future documents for Barack Obama's online presidential library. Jason Marck / WBEZ
A tan building with an arched doorway with a black parking lot stretching out in front of it
The front entrance to the facility that temporarily houses the future documents for Barack Obama's online presidential library. Jason Marck / WBEZ

What’s That Building? Why This Hoffman Estates Warehouse Stores Barack Obama’s Presidential Papers

If you drove past this suburban building, you likely wouldn’t suspect it houses the classified and non-classified documents from Barack Obama’s eight years as president.

More than 20 truckloads of papers were brought from Washington, D.C. to this shuttered Plunkett furniture store in Hoffman Estates in early 2017.

Those documents will eventually be digitized and made available to the public in a different way from past presidential libraries. The Obama Presidential Library won’t be a physical building — it’ll live on the internet.

A McDonald's sign in the foreground, with the building housing the presidential papers of Barack Obama in the background
Barack Obama’s presidential papers are currently housed across the street from a McDonald’s. Jason Marck / WBEZ

A digital library saves the Obama Foundation some money

The facility that may come to mind when you think “Obama Presidential Library” — the one that’s proposed for a site in Jackson Park and currently in limbo because of a lawsuit — is the Barack Obama Presidential Center. If it gets built, the only library there will be a new branch of the Chicago Public Library. It’ll also be home to a museum, a forum space, and a public plaza.

Former President Barack Obama points to a rendering of the future Barack Obama Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago in May 2017.
Former President Barack Obama points to a rendering of the future Barack Obama Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center in May 2017. Nam Y. Huh / AP Photo

In May 2017, the National Archives announced Obama’s library would be entirely digital. The physical documents that traditionally fill a presidential library would instead be digitized, and ultimately stored outside of Illinois. It’s a move that saves the Obama Foundation quite a bit of money.

A security gate over a parking lot
This security gate is one of the only signs that something interesting is going on inside this former furniture store. WBEZ / Jason Marck

When ex-presidents build their presidential libraries, they are required by law to provide an endowment to the National Archives, the agency that manages presidential libraries. Today, that endowment must equal 60 percent of the cost of the library. That means that if the Obama Presidential Center included a library, the Obama Foundation would also have to raise tens of millions more for the endowment.

Where will Obama’s papers end up for good?

The documents won’t stay in Hoffman Estates forever. Under the digitizing plan, the National Archives will get custody of all the physical papers once they’ve been put online. The unclassified documents will go to a National Archives storage facility near Kansas City, Mo. and the classified ones will go back to Washington, D.C.

Until the digitizing work begins, the documents will stay in Hoffman Estates behind the the small security gate installed at the parking lot entrance.

Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter forCrain’s Chicago Business and Morning Shift’s “What’s That Building?” contributor.