Truman Library will undergo $25M renovation — the largest since opening in 1957
INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — It’s not easy for small-town presidential libraries to keep up these days with behemoths like the ones for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the Bushes, but no president knew more about overcoming long odds than Harry Truman.
The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum closed its doors Monday for a $25 million, yearlong renovation aimed at transforming the visitor experience by overhauling the floor plan, adding a 3,000-square-foot facade and augmenting the legacy of the nation’s perennially popular 33rd president.
“These exhibits have been here for about 20 years, and they’ve held up well, but 20 years is a long time,” said library director Kurt Graham. “Another reason that we’re doing this now is that we’ve just learned a lot about Harry Truman in the last 20 years. There’s incredible scholarship that has been done and continues to be done about this era.”
Admission was free over the weekend and Monday as a steady stream of visitors came to see the 62-year-old center, one the National Archives and Records Administration’s 13 presidential libraries, where Truman himself would sometimes give tours before his death at age 88 in 1972.
He built the library in 1957 for $2 million in the town where he and his wife, Bess, spent most of their lives. The location adds to the museum’s charm and authenticity but makes it difficult to attract the crowds that turn out at the John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Reagan and Bush libraries in larger population centers.
“The libraries all kind of reflect the personality of the president they represent, and we’re no exception,” said Mr. Graham. “The Reagan Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, the Bush Foundation, those all have hundreds of millions in their endowments. When you have a $250 million endowment, you just do things differently. It would be wrong to think we’re trying to compete with Reagan or Bush or Clinton.”
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley outside Los Angeles has about 400,000 annual visits. Mr. Graham said the Truman library brings in roughly 100,000 visitors each year to the community of 117,000 outside Kansas City.
“We definitely hold our own,” said Mr. Graham. “It’s not that we’re lesser; it’s just a different approach. We pack a pretty big punch in terms of our programs.”
The Truman Library Institute, with its $15 million endowment, so far has raised $23 million of the $25 million cost of the renovations, most of it through private and corporate contributions. Nearly all of the fundraising will go toward building and exhibit improvements, with $1 million for the endowment.
In addition to adding a glass facade, the library plans to consolidate its permanent exhibit on the first floor instead of dividing Truman’s personal and professional lives between floors. A 14-foot-diameter interactive globe on post-World War II challenges will be added, as well as sound and light theaters on World War II and the Cold War.
Small-town museums, big-time renovations
Presidential libraries like the Truman operate in a different ZIP code from those such as the planned Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, which is reportedly seeking to raise a record $1 billion endowment.
That hasn’t stopped the humbler presidential destinations from raising their goals in recent years.
The Truman closure coincides with the reopening of another small-town presidential center. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home is scheduled to reopen next week after a yearlong hiatus, and a formal grand opening is scheduled for Eisenhower’s birthday in October.
The Eisenhower library is located in Abilene, Kansas, population 6,400, but it manages to attract 200,000 visitors a year, said director Dawn Hammatt. She attributed the number to the former supreme Allied commander’s appeal and the library’s location along Interstate 70.
“This is anecdotal, but a lot of our visitors seem to be just driving through Kansas, and they see our wonderful billboards, and they stop in,” Ms. Hammatt said.
She said the library has received a design and an informational face-lift as well as a change in perspective. In the updated collection, the story will be told “through the voices of Ike and Mamie themselves,” she said.
“The exhibits have not been completely, holistically updated since the early ‘80s, and in your own home, stuff just starts to look dated after a while and you want to refresh it,” said Ms. Hammatt. “But the other component is that we’ve gotten more scholarship available on Eisenhower in the past five years, and it was time to update the story — not just the look of it, but the meat of it.”
Another presidential stop in flyover country, the Warren G. Harding Home and Memorial in Marion, Ohio, is undergoing a renovation that includes the construction of a presidential center. The reopening is scheduled for spring.
It may be off the beaten path, but the Truman library benefits from the Democrat’s unflagging popularity. Truman, who served from 1945 to 1953, routinely makes the lists of the 10 greatest U.S. presidents. He is remembered for his decisiveness, plain speaking and phrases such as “The buck stops here.”
Anthony Clark, author of the 2015 book “The Last Campaign,” has ripped presidential libraries as “legacy-polishing temples,” “theme parks” and “partisan shrines,” but he praised the Truman library’s collection in a 2017 C-SPAN interview.
He referenced an exhibit with a letter and Purple Heart from a father who was angry with Truman for his son’s death. The items were found in the former president’s office after his death.
“When President Truman planned the library, he didn’t want a memorial to himself; he wanted people to know what the presidency was like,” said Mr. Clark. “He wanted a day in the life of the president. And to me, more than any other exhibit at that library, that letter and that medal demonstrate that.”
There’s something about Truman that appeals to partisans on both sides of the aisle, Mr. Graham said.
“I think the state of play today of our politics today is such that people on the right and the left side like Harry Truman,” he said. “He’s consistently ranked among the fifth or sixth best presidents in our history, not just because of the decisions that were thrust at him but the way he went about that process. He was very decisive. He had integrity. He studied the issue out.”
The former Missouri farmer and haberdasher was also the last president without a college degree, a luxury he was unable to afford. The Missouri Supreme Court issued Truman an honorary law license after his death.
“We will never have another president like Harry Truman again in terms of a bootstraps guy who came up and kind of made his way,” said Mr. Graham. “Those days are gone.”