Dickinson could one day be home to a library for one of the most revered presidents in American history.
Dickinson State University and one of the country’s top museum planning firms, at the behest of the North Dakota Legislature, are in the early stages of designing a concept for a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library to be built in the city — likely on the university’s campus. Planners envision a facility that would be as nationally renowned as any other presidential library.
“I think this is huge for all of North Dakota,” DSU President D.C. Coston said. “A presidential library — as it’s been discussed here — has huge national and, in many cases, international impact.”
Toward the end the 2013 legislative session, the Theodore Roosevelt Center at DSU was tasked with developing a concept for building a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. The Legislature passed two bills that would grant $12 million toward the construction of the library as long as the Roosevelt Center could raise $3 million in private funds by June 30, 2015.
The library’s initial master planning phase hit its stride this week DSU officials met with museum planners Hilferty and Associates to determine a concept for turning the Legislature’s “challenge,” as Coston called it, into reality.
“We want it to have a very serious national impact,” said Gene Hilferty, president of Hilferty and Associates. “This isn’t a local effort. This is a Theodore Roosevelt place where you come — nationally and internationally — to learn about his life, his time here in North Dakota, but more importantly, his influence on the whole American scene.”
Clay Jenkinson, a Theodore Roosevelt Humanities Scholar for the Roosevelt Center, is one of the foremost authorities on the 26th president. He said it’s unfortunate that Roosevelt doesn’t already have a presidential library.
Of 44 U.S. Presidents, only 21 have presidential libraries. Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, are the lone 20th century presidents without such a facility.
“Here’s Roosevelt, one of the greatest presidents in American history — if anyone would have such an institution, you’d think it would be Roosevelt, and he doesn’t,” Jenkinson said.
Though he was a New Yorker by birth and in the political realm, Roosevelt is revered for his time spent as a cowboy and rancher in the Badlands near Medora.
The Roosevelt Center at DSU’s Stoxen Library has been compiling a digital library on the president since 2005.
“There’s all kinds of interesting things we’re discussing in terms of utilizing the center’s virtual library right now and incorporating that into the visitor experience in surprising and meaningful ways,” Hilferty said.
Because of the work being done at DSU, and with Medora and the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park only a half-hour drive west of Dickinson, Jenkinson said there’s nowhere better to build a Roosevelt library than in western North Dakota.
“Roosevelt said — and he meant — of all the experiences in his life, the one he had being an authentic rancher and cowboy in the Badlands of Dakota was the one he would keep if everything else were to slip away,” Jenkinson said. “This is the logical place for it.
“If it were built in New York or at Harvard, it would be another interesting thing in that part of the world. Here, it’ll be one of the most amazing things in this part of the world.”
What would it be?
Planning a presidential library takes time, said Tim Pfaff, a consultant for Hilferty.
“You want to think about who it’s for and what it’s about,” he said.
Planners believe a Roosevelt presidential library would have a wide audience and attract students of all ages, researchers from around the world and tourists visiting the national park and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. They also want it to serve as a type of community center for Dickinson and western North Dakota.
With that in mind, Hilferty designed three concept libraries.
The first, titled, “On the Frontier” would encompass 2 • acres and make the digital library the centerpiece of the experience and use virtual exhibits. The second conception, “Roosevelt’s America” would be geared toward educators, students and North Dakotans. The third, “Becoming Roosevelt” would emphasize how North Dakota served as a turning point in his life and would recreate the Elkhorn Ranch. The second and third would both be about 3 acres.
An open forum to discuss visions for the library was held Monday night, but only about 10 people attended. The Monday morning blizzard was mostly to blame, Coston said.
“We were thrilled to have that many people on a night like that,” he said with a laugh.
Coston added there’s so much more planning to be done that Hilferty will return to Dickinson after “honing down on a concept,” and more public discussions will be scheduled.
Economic sustainability and site planning — including interpretive plans and exhibit concepts — will take place in the coming months with recommendations expected to be presented by July.
“This, like any big endeavor, is a multi-stage process,” Hilferty said.
‘We can’t fail’
Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, is confident that planning for the library is “on the right track” and that the Theodore Roosevelt Center will have a strong conceptual design to present to the Legislature during the 2015 session.
Wardner feels the proposed library is something the Legislature will support and believes it should be viewed in the same light as the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.
“We’re taking a look at the history of a president that spent time in North Dakota,” he said. “There are Teddy Roosevelt fans all over the world and they do not have a place they can go.”
There’s no projected completion date or site picked out for the library.
“At this point, it depends on how the thing continues to develop,” Coston said.
Regardless of what the library’s concept becomes or how long it takes to become a reality, planners said they are confident their project will succeed, and both private and state funding will come together.
“We can’t fail,” Jenkinson said. “We have to step up and make this succeed.”