Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
In the early years of Presidential Library architecture, the 37th president asked for a replica oval office, a feature he heard was popular inside Truman’s.
The Master of the Senate only needed seven minutes to get what he wanted out of Gordon Bunshaft.
With construction already underway on the presidential library he was designing in Austin, the architect took a phone call from his workaholic client after dinner on October 10, 1968.
Then-president Lyndon B. Johnson had just found out about the replica Oval Office inside Harry Truman’s presidential library, and he absolutely had to have one, too. “That is the most attractive thing [inside the Truman library], they tell me,” said the President. “I’d rather have that than anything else.”
The design had been approved two years before. Concrete was already being poured, Bunshaft noted, but the architect who brought the International Style to corporate America seemed receptive to the nearly last-second request.
The Presidential Libraries Act—which established the current system of privately built and federally maintained libraries—had only been passed in 1955, so replica Oval Offices were not yet the exhibit staple Americans now expect when they visit one.
But the 37th president had Bunshaft’s respect from the day the designer first presented a model of his library design in 1966. Bunshaft was blown away by Johnson’s ability to absorb so many details the idea in a 15-minute viewing before giving it the green light. Here’s Bunshaft recalling the encounter in an oral history in 1969:
Now, how the hell he could have understood it and remembered it from fifteen minutes is beyond me. In fact, the next meeting I had, I talked to one of the secretaries, Juanita Roberts, and I said, "Look, he must have come back and studied that model." The model was taken away the next morning, but he could have come back that evening. She’s very close, not his secretary, she’s an assistant; she’s not out there, but she’s in Washington–anyhow, swore up and down that the President never went back.
The library, with an Oval Office replica on the 10th floor, opened to the public on May 22, 1971.