ARCHITECT'S VISION: Nov. 19, visitors can see the real thing.
The Arkansas Times was not able to see the interior of the completed William Clinton Presidential Center before we went to press. But we got a mental picture of the exhibits, and the thinking that went into them (see sidebar), from the horse’s mouth: exhibits designer Ralph Appelbaum, whose New York design firm can take credit for exhibits in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.; the American Museum of Natural History in New York; The Newseum in Arlington, Va. (and its new version to be built in D.C.); the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York … and so on.
With help from Appelbaum and the Clinton Presidential Foundation, we offer this tour guide:
As you enter the Clinton Presidential Park, the eastern terminus of President Clinton Avenue, you’ll see the Clinton Center and the archives before you, two shining buildings connected by an enclosed walkway. Over the walkway is engraved “Let Us Resolve to Build a Bridge to the 21st Century.” Parking is on your right, and if you’re driving a battery-powered car, you can plug it in while you tour the center.
As you approach the center, you’ll tread upon some of the 8,000 brick pavers, inscribed with the names of donors to the library, that make up Celebration Circle. In the center of the circle, a marker indicates the underground berth of a time capsule placed there Aug. 19, the president’s 58th birthday. When the time capsule is opened in 2104, the people of the 22nd century will be able to inspect messages from some 3,000 people and other memorabilia from 2004, including a copy of the Arkansas Times.
When you enter the main level of the center, you’ll buy your ticket, go through security and get your first chance to gawk at the cool surrounds: scored limestone walls, bamboo floors, polished steel, glass. To the right, under the escalator to the first exhibit level, sits a gleaming black presidential limousine, a 12,500-pound 1993 Cadillac used in President Clinton’s 1997 inauguration and which transported him here and abroad. It has been retired here in an exhibit that pays tribute to the Secret Service.
Ahead in the foyer is a visitor information center for people with special needs or questions on other Clinton-related sites. What is not here: A gift shop. That’s back at 610 President Clinton Ave., in the historic SOS building.
To the left (north) of the entry is the River View Terrace, which offers a view of an Arkansas River backwater the Clinton Foundation plans to restore as a natural area; the Rock Island Bridge, scheduled to be refurbished as a pedestrian bridge sometime in 2005; and whatever development comes North Little Rock’s way as a result of the masterpiece on the south bank.
To reach the terrace, you’ll pass the Workers’ Wall, where more than 1,500 names will be inscribed once the project is complete to honor the people who built the library. To the right (south) of the entry is a terrace overlooking the Scholars Garden, a quiet landscaped area between the National Archives portion of the Clinton Center and the Clinton School of Public Service in the refurbished Choctaw Station, a 19th century building that reminds visitors of the park’s earlier identity.
Elevators and escalators give access to the second floor; first stop is the orientation theater. The curving outside walls of the theater are pinned with Clinton’s vast political button collection; inside the theater, a new Harry Thomason film about Clinton will play to up to 80 visitors at a time. (The Foundation and the board of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute are negotiating a use of the theater as a film festival venue.) The oval walls make a column that rises to the fourth, private floor, where they surround a meeting room for the foundation.
The first exhibit, on the north end, is an interactive replica of the Cabinet Room in the White House. Here you may sit at a grand oval mahogany table made by Kittinger, the company that made the original. But this table is different: it includes interactive computers that visitors can query to learn more about how the president makes decisions.
The entry to the exhibit hall includes information to set the scene: Statistics about America before and after Bill Clinton left office. In the hall, two-story wood and glass columns march down either side of a timeline, a design inspired by Trinity College, Dublin. The columns double as bookshelves, and behind their glass, stacked to the ceiling, are boxes of documents generated during the Clinton administration, a nanopercentage of the holdings of the archives. The interactive timeline down what Appelbaum calls the “spine” of the room has computer touch screens to look up the president’s schedule on any particular day in his administration, hear a speech, learn more about a particular event. Alcoves on either side address Clinton’s policies — on race, the economy, foreign policy — and how they affected individuals, employing touch screens, artifacts, videos and original documents. Here, visitors may spend seconds or use the technology to go deeper into the subject. One alcove is dedicated to the impeachment of the president and the Senate’s vote to acquit.
Like the main floor, the north end of the library opens onto a balcony. An exterior deck on the west side passes between the outer layer of glass specially designed for the center and the structure’s glass and steel walls.
On the south end of the second floor is the Clinton Center’s cash cow: The two-story Great Hall, a space for lease by the public. The Great Hall seats 240 people banquet style, 300 “symposium style.” Balconies wrap the room on the west and south sides. Pull-down screens serve both to block light and provide a projection surface. (The terrace on the entry floor may also be rented for receptions and the like.) By mid-October, 75 events had been scheduled in the Great Hall, Clinton Foundation President Skip Rutherford said — some of them even before the foundation had settled on a lease price.
The third floor
The Oval Office introduces visitors to the third floor. Unlike Oval Offices in other presidential libraries, this one is a painstaking, full-size recreation of the room, right down to the width of the stripes on the silk sofas. Kaki Hockersmith, the Little Rock designer who created the history-inspired furnishings for the original Clinton Oval Office, has worked for a year on the library’s reproduction. She’s had remade the draperies of gold damask woven with an acanthus leaf pattern (they are themselves, except for the color, a replication of fabric used in George Washington’s home). Also: A copy of the Resolute desk (the original was made from the timbers of the HMS Resolute and is still in the Oval Office); the gold-rope-bordered blue carpet with its central seal of the presidency surrounded by 50 white stars; the sofas covered in cream, gold and red striped silk; an oval coffee table with an inlaid starburst pattern, Hockersmith’s own design; the Childe Hassam painting “Avenue in the Rain.” The Hassam and a Norman Rockwell painting have been reproduced as giclees with a gel overlay; more complicated to copy were their one-of-a-kind frames. A cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” that sat on President Clinton’s desk for eight years will be on the desk in Little Rock’s Oval Office. The cast was loaned by Iris and the late Gerald Kantor, and Mrs. Kantor has agreed to loan it to the presidential library for its first six months of operation.
The Oval Office leads to the second level of the main exhibit hall, where alcoves offer exhibits on life in the White House, from hand-made tree decorations to state dinners to the president’s dog, Buddy. Also on this level is the temporary exhibit hall, where new installations each year will draw return viewers. The opening installation: An exhibit on the blues. A north and east side terrace offer a view of the rear of the presidential park and, soon, the headquarters of presidential park neighbor Heifer International.
The fourth floor
The top level of the building will be private space for the Clinton Foundation and a glass-walled suite for the Clintons to use while they’re in town — which should be several times a year, Rutherford believes.
The level below the Main Level (down stairs or an elevator) houses Cafe 42 (as in 42nd president), where 80 to 100 people may dine on simple meals (hot dogs for school groups), Senate Bean Soup and Hillary’s Brownies prepared in the center’s working kitchen. Cafe 42 will be open every day; a library ticket is not required to eat there.
Cafe 42 will also cater private parties. Want to serve your guests the same meal the Clinton White House dished up for Stevie Wonder and Czech President Vaclav Havel? Coming right up. (The kitchen is non-partisan; it will do up Republican nosh as well.)