After years of rumors, speculation, and rhetorical jousting, the George W. Bush Presidential Center is finally public. Former first lady Laura Bush and architect Robert A.M. Stern unveiled the final design November 18 at Southern Methodist University, Mrs. Bush’s alma mater and the center’s future home. 

With an estimated $250 million budget, the 227,000-square-foot center will contain a museum, library, and archive, plus a private Policy Institute that some SMU faculty and trustees have denounced as a partisan think tank. The center will overlook a rolling landscape of native Texas grasses and wildflowers by Michael Van Valkenburgh.

Stern was selected in 2007 to design a library “compatible with the distinct architectural character [i.e. Georgian] of SMU that commemorates and celebrates the accomplishments of President Bush.” He responded with a red brick and creamy Texas limestone building featuring an entry plaza, colonnade, and tall square tower that recalls the more fanciful cupolas on other SMU buildings.

“We wanted to be sympathetic to Georgian without being literal,” Stern explained. “But we didn’t want a building that looked as if it belonged on a ranch either.”

He characterized the center as non-partisan. “It doesn’t say anything specific about President Bush. It’s not a portrait or a defense. It’s about the presidency and the dignity of the office.” 

Michael Van Valkenburgh’s rustic garden, covering roughly half of the site’s 23 acres, provides a sharp contrast to the formal landscape of the rest of the campus. He said the fluid design reflects the wishes of the Bushes for an informal space that functions as a park for the neighbors and SMU. Mrs. Bush attended most of the architect meetings and vetted designers’ ideas with the president. “There was always a sense that his voice was in the room, even though he wasn’t,” said Van Valkenburgh.  

One remaining hurdle is a property owner's lawsuit claiming that SMU misled him about its plans, causing the owner to sell his condominium for below market value. If the suit is settled soon, construction could start next spring, with a dedication in February, 2013.