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Sweet: Will the Obama Center include gravesites?

WASHINGTON – When James L. “Skip” Rutherford, a close friend of President Bill Clinton, was overseeing the planning and construction of the Clinton Presidential Center and Park in Little Rock, Arkansas, there was a very delicate matter to deal with.

Should the facility include space for gravesites for Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton?

The matter, however difficult, comes up as the Obama Presidential Foundation last week launched a competition for President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle to select an architect to plan and design the Obama Center on Chicago’s South Side.

“The decision where President Clinton is going to be buried is entirely up to President Clinton,” Rutherford told me. “But if he chooses the Clinton Library site as a burial site, the library is ready.”

Rutherford realized the burial matter, however premature, had to be addressed in planning the Clinton Center after he toured the other presidential libraries and museums and saw how former presidents and their wives were buried on the sites.

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“When I was in charge of building the Clinton library project, you have to consider whether the president is going to be buried there. You have to give it some thought, and we have given it some thought,” Rutherford said.

Clinton, said Rutherford, “was aware that we were talking with other libraries about burial sites.”

President Herbert Hoover is buried at the Hoover Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the founder of the modern federal presidential library system, is buried at the Franklin Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.

President Harry Truman’s grave is at the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. President Dwight Eisenhower’s final resting place is at the Eisenhower Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.

President Richard Nixon is buried at the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. President Gerald Ford grave is at the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. President Ronald Reagan is entombed at the Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California.

There is a Bush family gravesite on the grounds of the President George H.W. Bush Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. However, Bush has another option, in Kennebunkport, Maine, where his family has summered for generations.

“Presidential tombs are not morbid,” C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb wrote in his book about presidential gravesites, “Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb.” “The truth is, these graves are not so much about death as they are about personal and political symbolism.”

The “Request for Qualifications” the Obama Foundation released last Wednesday is more about the broad strokes of the Center than specific details. The RFQ envisions a center that contains space for a library, museum, restaurant, retail store, foundation headquarters, garden, sports, performance and academic facility. The center is supposed to trigger an economic revitalization of the surrounding community.

The sites under study are about 22 acres in Washington Park plus 11 acres across the street and some 21 acres in Jackson Park.

The search for an architect for the Obama Center will come in two stages. The deadline to respond to the foundation’s “Request for Qualifications” is 5 p.m. Chicago time on Sept. 16. After the Obamas pick finalists, a “Request for Proposals” will be issued later this year. An architect is not expected to be named until early 2016.

I asked a foundation spokesman about final resting place planning and was told, “We are solely focused on Barack Obama’s life.”

For every modern presidential library, said Rutherford, now the dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, “the burial space is an architectural design consideration.”

first published: 08/30/2015, 02:40pm