Architect Robert Stern Shows Off the Bush Center

Robert A. M. Stern
Robert A. M. Stern

It’s a good thing today’s sneak peek/”Topping Out Ceremony” at the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the SMU campus took place early in the morning. Because that’s when the guy who served as the main tour guide–world-renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern–really comes alive. “I’m an early-morning person, so you’ve caught me at my best,” Stern said, walking toward the mammoth, still-under-construction site with an army of media in tow. “At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, don’t even talk to me.”

Stern (pictured in photo by Jeanne Prejean) has served as the architect for a couple of projects in North Texas: a swanky manse in Preston Hollow, and the residences at the Ritz-Carlton. But the Bush complex is his biggest here to date. He said the 226,000-square-foot structure on 25 acres has been “designed like a federal building or an embassy.” (In other words: really, really secure, with back-up systems for the back-up systems.) Since it will house the Bush library and museum as well as the Bush Institute, though, it was also designed to be accessible to many types of visitors, Stern said, from sophisticated travelers to tourists in RVs and moms pushing baby strollers.

Entry To Bush Center
Entry To Bush Center

That eclecticism shows. Enveloping “the most urban presidential library in the country,” the complex aims to blend in with SMU’s other buildings while also showcasing the city of Dallas, Stern said. The Center’s big dome (shown in photo by Prejean)–or “freedom lantern”–mimics Dallas Hall, the oldest building on campus, for example. From a south-facing terrace, Stern pointed out, you can also see the downtown Dallas skyline. (Though, truth to tell, some trees on the property this morning seemed to be blocking a big chunk of it.)

In addition, the Center’s going to include a “perfectly exact” replica of the Oval Office–so that “you can stand behind the desk and understand what it’s like to be president of the United States”–as well as a replica of the Rose Garden, Stern said. Also: statues of W and his father, Bush 41; a twisted and charred, 22-foot-long beam from one of the World Trade Center towers, on permanent vertical display; space for traveling museum exhibitions from the Smithsonian, say; and a 350-seat auditorium where the the likes of U.S. presidential debates could be held.

George and Laura Bush
George and Laura Bush

Toward the end of his tour, Stern gave way to former First Lady Laura Bush (shown with W in Prejean photo). She touted the Center’s  green-building features–it’s seeking LEED Platinum certification, the highest environmentally-friendly designation–and its use of locally and regionally sourced materials. Among them: Texas pecan wood paneling; coral “rough” stone taken from the Permian Basin close to Midland, where she and W used to live (“George was surprised” about that, Mrs. Bush said); and a roughly 15-acre park with a “North Texas prairie” feel and trees from the couple’s tree farm at their Crawford ranch.

For the “Topping Out Ceremony” itself–that’s where the building’s topmost steel beam is hoisted into place with a crane, and everybody cheers–a relaxed-looking, wise-cracking W took the microphone, jacket-less in the mid-morning heat. Bush said he likes hanging out at SMU, where he once went into a classroom and a guy wearing a cap turned backwards looked at him and said, “You look like George Bush.” He said he likes the fact that Manhattan Construction is putting up the Center, because “they built the Ballpark at Arlington, and it’s still standing!” And he said he’s looking forward to a “sym-by-ot-ic” relationship between the Center and SMU (“That’s a big word here on the campus,” he added, chuckling).

Today was the last chance to tour the Center prior to its opening early in 2013, the organizers said. Stern, the architect, said the multi-year design process has been “great and smooth,” as well as “complicated and fascinating for me, as an architect.” Has the project been his most satisfying? Just as it’s problematic to name your favorite child, Stern replied, he couldn’t say that. “But this is certainly one of the most important commissions I’ve ever undertaken,” he said. “It’s not only about the Bushes but about the American presidency and American democracy, and I can’t imagine anything more important than that.”


  • Bush-friendly Star-Telegram reporter wrote: “He [George W. Bush] and more than 500 workers and supporters applauded as Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation, announced ‘the shape of the building is complete.'”
    500 workers and supporters? Really?
    i took this pic at 11am, as the crane placed the beam, and it sure doesn’t look like a crowd of 500 to me.

  • If you look at your photo in actual size you can do a block count (draw a square around a small group and count heads). It doesn’t take long to get the count of a block and then to count the number of blocks. I was able to count more than 400 people so I am not sure 500 is that unbelievable. To be sure, I think 500 is a very low number for this event.

  • Jackson

    So, Bush is quoted by Glenn as saying he’s looking forward to a “sym-by-ot-ic” relationship between the Center and SMU (”That’s a big word here on the campus,” he added, chuckling).

    SMU students don’t find that word difficult to pronounce or understand, so it’s an unfunny joke by definition. Why does W continue to make awkward jokes about being dumb? It’s a weird thing to say at a respected academic institution (he’s done it before at his own alma mater), and it’s rude to those who cherish the respected institution’s purpose. It’s just juvenile, unbecoming a man of his age and stature.

    And now we’re gonna go for Ricky Bobby, who makes W look like Robert Oppenheimer. Bless our hearts.

  • Ben


    There was a large informal lunch thing after the event in front of Moody Coliseum on the west side. There were at least 500 people there or more. You needed reservations for both events. You could not just wander up Airline and get free grub and rub elbows.

  • Obama’s Seat

    Occupy it!

  • Daniel

    Stern really does look stern. Or like his hat has little electrodes in it that do their thing on his noggin and make him see the Pharaoh materializing in thin air. Kind of like in the Doors movie when the Indian keeps appearing to Jim Morrison, only for Robert A.M. Stern it’s the Pharaoh? And he goes, What are you thinking, building a monument to this third-rate piker?, and the duly chastened Robert A.M. Stern just stands there looking stern.

    In conclusion, the Pharoah was a good man.

  • “I was able to count more than 400 people”

    Yeah right, I looked at the picture, maybe 100 people.

    Typical Bush supporter, bad at math, history, science, ethics, memory, etc.

    A small crowd, of mostly employees, and dead enders. How come Cheney wasn’t invited?

  • @Ben OK. But the original article made it sound like there were 500 people present when the beam was put into place. My photo clearly shows that this was not the case. The article has since been edited.
    Yesterday it read “He [George W. Bush] and more than 500 workers and supporters applauded as Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation, announced ‘the shape of the building is complete.'”
    Today it reads, “He grinned and applauded, along with more than 500 supporters and construction workers, who attended a traditional topping-out ceremony at the center Monday morning.” They put the Langadale’s quote a few grafs later, thus untying the extemporaneous quote and the 500 people.
    The original article can still be found here:

  • Glenn Hunter

    @Jackson: I think you’re being a tad hard on W. When he said the line, it was funny. To me it hinted at his plain-spokenness, poked fun at his image, tweaked intellectuals who use $5 words when simple ones would be better. And, what’s wrong with chiding the Ivory Tower a little? Buckley said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the “dons of Harvard.”

  • Daniel

    Yeah, because the dons of Harvard weren’t pedantic enough for him. I guarantee he would rather have been governed by the dons of Harvard than the first 2,000 people in the Dallas phone book. Or, you know, Midland.

  • Carroll

    The fact that there are still people who vilify President Bush (while glorifying one with no sense of history and no backbone) says more about him and the good fortune of SMU to have his Library than anything else could. More professors will start showing up when the money starts pouring onto the campus and they are asked for their sound bites.