Gordon Bunshaft: Yes?
LBJ: Lyndon Johnson.
Bunshaft: Oh, yes, Mr. President. How are you?
LBJ: I hope I’m not interrupting your dinner or something.
Bunshaft: Oh, no, no. I—we finished some time ago.
LBJ: Gordon, we—I just learned tonight, our folks have been out looking at these libraries and is there no way in the world that we could reconstitute as nearly as possible in the President’s office at the Library the President’s office here?
Bunshaft: Well, we hadn’t thought of it, but it’s possible—
LBJ: I hate to build me a little one out there at the side and say, this is the way the President’s office looked. And here’s his desk and here’s his chair. Here’s his FDR picture. Here’s his—where all these people sat. Now, that is the most attractive thing, they tell me, to the people who go and hear it, is Truman discussing where he sat in this office.
Bunshaft: [talking over each other] I didn’t know that the Tru—in Kansas of Mr. Truman—President Truman—
LBJ: Lady Bird said we—well, we have a trouble—she says it just ought to be, we just should have thought of it, we just played hell not doing it. And now we got a bunch of can’t-do philosophy. She says that the ceiling’s not high enough—well maybe we don’t have to have the same height ceiling but maybe—and maybe we can’t have the same oval room, maybe it—we’ve got different dimensions. But it seems to me that if we could, we ought to take this rug out of here and this—just as the Kennedy’s are doing and have done, just as the Trumans did—and ought to take the desk and ought to take the chairs, and we ought to say—you see, very—relatively few people come through the President’s office here.
LBJ: But all of them want to see where the President worked, just as much as they want to see where the President was born, when they come to our little house. That’s one of the basic things, and it’s going to be remembered and impress it on them a lot more than some book up in a shelf.
LBJ: And if we could, I just—that’s the one thing I want. I’d like to have as near a reproduction as finances and architectural requirements would permit. I don’t say it’s got to be 18 feet high or 14, or it’s got to be 38 feet long.
LBJ: We might have a little card on the door and say this is not an exact reproduction, or something, but I’d like for it to be such that, say—where they get an impression that here’s where the President worked, because they all want to see that. They all want to—that’s what they come to see.
Bunshaft: Yes. Well, Mr. President, we’ll get the dimensions and we’ll try several locations—maybe there’s more than on—and it would be nice, if we could do it, to do it exactly, because I think the quality of that room is the total thing. And it may be possible to do it.
People from the northeast have a long history of perverting Texas with their wicked ideas, and Gordon Bunshaft is one of its most profound examples, as his idea—the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum—will stand the test of time. Bunshaft, who was born in Buffalo, educated and trained at MIT, and made his career in the New York City super-firm Skiddings, Owing, and Merill, designed unarguably the most important piece of Austin architecture. He had a reputation of being a tough and crude man who spoke his mind, and was known for long silences where he would search for the right solution to a problem. He was someone who could lead an artistic movement because not only did he believe in what he said, he would stop at nothing to make you agree with him, and he shut out those who didn’t.
He was so outspoken, in fact, that he didn’t hesitate to disagree with LBJ. In a famous letter he sent to the president, he said, “The only sour note in your library, it seems to me, is the Political Campaign Exhibit [which] seems to have been done without the slightest sense of design or regard for the space or walls … It all looks like a poor trade show.”
Bunshaft was a terse and difficult man. He never lectured or taught, or liked to share his ideas with people. He didn’t leave behind drawings or a legacy for us to learn from. Even his house on Long Island was destroyed after Martha Stewart sold it to the textile business owner, Donald Maraham, who thought it was ugly.
Bunshaft’s design of the LBJ Presidential Library & Museum is a minimal monolith—a work clearly dedicated to modernism, yet with an intention to give homage to an earnest president. It is, with its sleek design, a very serious work of architecture, creating a somber, contemplative feeling, yet also with inviting balconies to take in views of the city and a majestic ceremonial staircase inside. This Austin architecture landmark houses 45 million pages of historical documents, including the papers of President Johnson and those of his close associates and others. As per LBJ’s request, referenced in the phone call to Bunshaft at the beginning of this article, the top floor of the library has a 7/8 scale replica of President Johnson’s Oval Office.
Ada Louise Huxtable, in her review in The New York Times of this great piece of Austin architecture, said, “Architecture as art and symbol is one of civilization’s oldest games, and Mr. Bunshaft is one of its most dedicated players.”
By: David Plick