In a nondescript warehouse in South El Monte, amid wood shavings and scrap metal, the legend of George Herbert Walker Bush is being born.
Hired by a foundation of private donors to build icons for the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, the model-building company Universal Exhibits has embarked on one of its most extensive projects to date.
A former Rose Parade float-building company, Universal Exhibits has made heroes out of daffodils. The 51-year-old family business is experienced in preserving the ephemeral with little more than wood planks and glue.
So given the task of using the world's most recognizable international monuments and $5.3 million worth of interactive video, company officials said making the 41st president seem dynamic to the eyes of future generations will be easier than it sounds.
When it opens later this year in Texas, the George Bush Presidential Library's museum will walk visitors through a state-of-the-art timeline of the former commander in chief's career.
With video and computer exhibits and a version of the Capitol dome, the dazzling displays will "set the standard for presidential libraries," said Universal Exhibits chairman Moe Bell.
"We're using a lot of electronics," said Don Wilson, executive director of the George Bush Foundation, which is funding the project. "That's what the young people today understand. If we just did a traditional museum, it'd be blah."
Even in an incomplete stage, the museum's pieces are anything but blah. Gesturing toward a 20-foot birch model of the presidential office aboard Air Force One, Norma Bell, marketing director and Moe's daughter-in-law, said the museum will easily outshine the libraries of Bush's predecessors.
Other presidential libraries feature models of the Oval Office and White House portico. But "no one has done this before," she said of the 747 model.
For a museum designed to focus much attention on the Persian Gulf War, the plane model was not only unique but necessary, said Moe Bell.
"Air Force One is significant, because that is where he had to make a lot of the decisions on Desert Storm," Bell said.
And Desert Storm is significant because it makes for imposing display possibilities.
Scud and Patriot missiles will point from the ceiling at visitors as lights flash on an enormous ground-level globe, indicating bombing hits and points of conflict.
The library will rely heavily on such impressive displays, and although it will lack many pop-culture aspects of Bush's presidency--imitations by comedian Dana Carvey and any reference to pork rinds have been omitted--the museum will teach future generations more about the horse-shoe tossing, broccoli-hating president than is found in standard history books.
One exhibit will showcase a refurbished cherry red '47 Studebaker, the same stylish set of wheels Bush sported on his road trip from Kennebunkport, Maine, to Texas to begin his oil business career.
Display cases will also house a few of Bush's favorite things: fishing gear, horseshoes, model boats, and a Yale University baseball uniform. One case will be dedicated solely to the extensive collection of miniature elephants, symbols of the Republican Party, that Bush acquired during his 12 years as president and vice president.
Universal Exhibits had little say in what it built, Moe Bell said. It got the design plans from private investors, overseers from the National Archives and a New York design company that decided what be included in the museum.
But the exhibits company was allowed to separate the feasible from the impossible in the design plans, and Bush was given final veto power.
The former president didn't like the original curved display case for the elephants, said Robert Bell, president of Universal Exhibits and Moe's son. "He wanted it more rectangular," he said.
Universal Exhibits hopes to ship the last icon to Texas three months before the library's expected November opening date. With up to 50 people working on it, the ambitious project is not crushing, at least not yet, Norma Bell said.
The real frenzy will set in sometime in March, when the company hopes to put the final touches on the president's displays while starting its next mammoth model-making project for a visitor's center in South Dakota.
"We'll be finalizing this," she said. "And we'll be starting to build Mount Rushmore."