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If you've always yearned to say "Little Rock" in the same breath as "London, Paris and Bilbao," now's the time. The William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center and Park is to open next month, but critics are already calling it one for the architectural history books. Like, some would say, America's 42nd president, the 12th presidential library has charisma and vision to burn: a horizontal glass-and-steel structure elevated 12 to 45 feet above the ground at points along the Arkansas River's sloping bank in an allusion to Clinton's theme of "a bridge to the 21st century."
The building was created by a team led by Manhattan-based Polshek Partnership Architects, the firm responsible for the Rose Center for Earth and Space (the glass cube annex housing the spherical planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History) and the new entry and plaza of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. For this project, they used vast glass panels to convey openness and accessibility. From some vantage points one can look straight through the building.
The center's Nov. 18 invitation-only dedication, which all living presidents and first ladies are expected to attend, will be preceded by several days of fanfare. Among the highlights in Little Rock: On Nov. 13, the public is invited to participate in a 5K Presidential Fun Run on a route similar to the president's regular (pre-bypass) jaunt; Nov. 16, Aretha Franklin, a Clinton favorite, is performing with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra; and the next evening a free concert celebrating Southern music, topped off by the largest fireworks display in Arkansas history, is slated.
Besides the archives of the Clinton presidency (about 80 million documents and 2 million photographs), the facility will house thousands of gifts that the president received during his tenure, including a sculpture from Michael Jordan of the basketball star making a one-handed basket and a mother of pearl depiction of Da Vinci's "Last Supper" from Yasser Arafat. The inaugural temporary exhibition, "Delta Heritage," begins Nov. 18 and will showcase items such as one of Clinton's saxophones, along with Bubba's CD collection (think Elvis and B.B. King).
The permanent exhibition includes replicas of the Cabinet Room and the Oval Office. (Stop that snickering.) A presidential limousine will anchor the section on the Secret Service. The economy and health care will be addressed. "There will also be exhibits on [pets] Socks and Buddy and holidays in the White House," says Skip Rutherford, president of the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation.
As for l'affaire Lewinsky, "I have not seen the exhibit scripts. I do not know," Rutherford says. But, "I think in any presidential library, you deal with victories and defeats, successes and failures. There will be an exhibit on impeachment."
The William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center and Park, 1200 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock, Ark.; (501) 370-5050, http://www.clintonpresidentialcenter.org . Opens to the public on Nov. 19. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and college students, $3 for children and free for active members of the military.