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The Story of the Lost Library : Nixon: Whittier failed three times on bids to build a repository for the resigned President's archives.

July 19, 1990|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nestled in the Whittier Hills sits a ridge-top plateau of pristine, prime real estate with a view of the Pacific on a clear day. The city of Whittier first sought to make this the home of a Nixon library more than two decades ago.

And again seven years ago.

And four more years ago.

But today, the champagne toasting the dedication of the $21-million library flows in Yorba Linda, Nixon's birthplace and now-chosen resting place for the former President's selected archives.

"We were terribly shocked," former Whittier Mayor Victor Lopez said recently of Nixon's decision to locate his private library elsewhere. "It would have been a boost to Whittier, Whittier College and the whole thing. We were terribly disappointed."

Gene Chandler, another of the city's former mayors, added: "We always figured that Whittier was his home."

It is easy to understand Whittier's claim to the 37th President. Although Richard M. Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, it was in Whittier that he spent his high school and college years. He met his wife in Whittier and practiced law here. And Whittier Republicans helped him start his political career, a successful bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis in a congressional district that encompassed the city and nearby communities.

Nixon entered Whittier as a child; he left it as a figure in national politics.

"We felt we had a complete inside track historically," Chandler said, "with Whittier representing most of his life. It wasn't to be."

Whittier's first effort to claim the library began shortly after Nixon's 1968 presidential triumph over Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Whittier College helped to lead the bid for the library, which enjoyed strong community support.

"His presidency was important at the time to the college," said Joseph Dmohowski, special collections librarian at Whittier College. "It attracted a lot of students to the college."

The city presented the then-President with a handsome, oversize, leather-bound and cloth-lined tome titled "The Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, Whittier, California." It contained pictorial highlights of Whittier and Nixon's career, intimately connecting the two on thick cardboard pages.

"It would be a great honor to see your presidential library standing on that Whittier hilltop, purchased with hopes just as high," wrote then-Mayor Keith Miller and Frederick Binder, who was Whittier College's president.

Local Nixon friends and supporters also commissioned "The Nixon Trail: A Site Feasibility Study for the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library."

Prepared by a prestigious architectural firm, the study contained a picture of a three-dimensional rendering of the library, which was envisioned sitting on a ridge among 120 acres of Whittier hillside--above where the city's landfill is now located.

The proposed complex consisted of two sets of concentric circles terraced down the hillside. There were also artists' conceptions of the library interior. The central gallery would feature NASA rockets and space capsules, which at the time is what the artists guessed would be remembered about Nixon's Administration. Indeed, the library study was submitted shortly after the first moon landing in December, 1969.

In addition, the study's authors proposed a historical trail winding through Whittier that included stops at the site of the favorite son's old law firm (Wingert, Bewley & Nixon), three schools he attended, four former Nixon residences, the site of his father's store, the Quaker church and the location of his wedding reception.

Clearly, everything was on course.

Then came Watergate.

Although most Whittier residents remained sympathetic to Nixon, the impetus for the library literally dissolved as the scandal forced Nixon's resignation in August, 1974. Choosing a location for his archives became a low priority.

"There was no discussion of the library for a long time after he left office," said Bruce Martin, executive manager of the Whittier Chamber of Commerce. "The trials were still going on. I think everything went on hold."

"Had it not been for Watergate, (the library) would have been here," said Clint Harris, a lifelong Nixon friend and Whittier resident who used to scrimmage head to head with the future President on the Whittier College football team.

By 1983, with Watergate nearly a decade in the past, interest in the library had resurfaced and several cities and universities were active competitors for it. Duke University (where Nixon attended law school) and UC Irvine were eliminated, in part because of faculty and student opposition.

Whittier, though, was a finalist for the site, along with Yorba Linda and San Clemente, which was the location of Nixon's Western White House. This time, Whittier's offer had shrunk to 20 acres, but it included the same spectacular ridge.

Lopez remembered attending a dinner party at the home of local Nixon boosters Ed and Ruth Shannon. Nixon's representatives were there, along with most of the City Council.

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