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NIXON LIBRARY : THE DESIGN : Unmonumental Library Reflects Nixon's Unpretentious Beginnings:

July 17, 1990|LEON WHITESON | Leon Whiteson, a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles, writes frequently about architecture for The Times

A simple yet moving image shapes the design of the new Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace--the image of the great leap the former President made from a small white clapboard farmhouse to the pinnacle of power in the White House.

Perched on a knoll shaded by pepper trees, the 1913 Nixon house--reputedly ordered from a Sears catalogue--is an architectural counterpoint to the smart new library down the hill. The axis of the long reflecting pool that lies at the center of the new library points straight to the President's boyhood home and the actual bed in which he was born.

"Nixon's journey from humble obscurity to national leadership is a central symbol in the way the library was laid out on the site," said library architect Richard Poulos. "The little house on the hill is the emotional anchor of the design."

The Nixon library is in many ways an extension of the President's home. Its character is muted, carefully crafted and very much in tune with the shady suburban streets that surround it.

Designed by Langdon Wilson Architecture & Planning, a national firm headquartered in Newport Beach, the library is a fine and appropriate building with no pretensions to be a great act of architecture. Its style expresses the down-home, ordinary-guy side of Nixon's character rather than the ambiguities of his complex soul.

Nixon made two major demands upon the architectural character of the library, Poulos said.

"He wanted a traditional, not a modernist building, and he insisted that the library create a welcoming atmosphere that would encourage people to visit and often return."

Composed of three low, red-tiled pavilions grouped around the reflecting pool, the complex breathes an air of domestic tranquility.

Clad in warm red Arizona sandstone set between a plinth of buff-colored cement plaster and a recessed band of black slate under the roof line, the library's architecture is truly welcoming and unmonumental. Its character continues the unpretentious tradition of most of the eight other presidential libraries.

The $14-million Nixon library is closer in spirit to such humble structures as the 1916 Rutherford B. Hayes Library in Fremont, Ohio--the first presidential archive--or Harry S. Truman's library in Independence, Mo., rather than the inspirational monumentality of the John F. Kennedy library in Dorchester, Mass.

The Kennedy library, designed by noted architect I.M. Pei, is a stark white concrete mausoleum set off by a 112-foot-high atrium enclosed in black glass overlooking Boston Harbor. Fit for a Pharaoh, the Kennedy library "makes it hard to believe that Mr. Kennedy was anything but a man of energy, of zest, of confidence," one architectural critic commented.

In contrast to this kind of pretension, the Nixon library makes no attempt to overwhelm the public with its importance.

One of the first features a visitor sees on arriving at the Nixon library is a grove of orange trees flanking the entrance. The grove not only softens the hard surfaces of the architecture, but also recalls the site's original purpose as the citrus farm of Frank Nixon, the former President's father.

The parking lot surrounding the library is landscaped with terraces, patterned paving and a lush fountain. Gentle steps lead up to the main entrance on the southeast corner of the site, through an entry portico and into the generous lobby.

For security reasons, the visitor's progress through the library is firmly but discreetly directed throughout the complex.

"To accommodate visitors while protecting the safety of the archival materials, we must control the way people move through the building," said attorney Hugh Hewitt, the library's acting executive director. "We want to operate this control discreetly but firmly."

In the lobby, a granite-topped reception desk directs the flow of circulation. Under the lobby pavilion's high, peaked ceiling--the shape mimicking the configuration of a Quaker meeting hall of the kind the Nixon family frequented--is an array of panels displaying the layout of the library.

An east wall of glass frames a charming vista along the length of the reflecting pool to the grassy knoll on which the Nixon house sits.

The Roman-style formality of the pool and its bordering trellis and colonnade make a touching contrast with the humble silhouette of the original farmhouse seen in the middle distance.

The opposite lobby wall is lined with a curving screen of bird's-eye maple paneling that hides the restrooms and the small gift shop tucked into a corner. Alabaster chandeliers and indirect cove lighting soften the hard surfaces of the terrazzo floors.

The lobby will also host temporary exhibits, such as a collection of Winston Churchill's paintings or jazz genius Duke Ellington's memorabilia.

The visitor, who, it is estimated, will spend about two hours going through the library, next proceeds to the 300-seat theater flanking the lobby.

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