Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Designs Unveiled

John Hill
18. August 2020
Image: Studio Gang

Architectural design concepts by the three finalists — Henning Larsen, Snøhetta, and Studio Gang — have been unveiled in the competition to design the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora, North Dakota.

Medora is a tiny town (population 112 as of the 2010 census) located in western North Dakota, just south of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The town is one of the main entrances into the 70,000-acre park devoted to the 26th President of the United States.

Per the National Park Service, "When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1883, he was a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that TR experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today."

TR's links to the North Dakota Badlands — so named because of the difficulty in traversing the beautifully eroded, rocky landscape in the days before highways — led to the creation of the eponymous national park, as well as the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation's decision to locate the planned library in Medora.

Dating back to 1939 and the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (TR and FDR were distant cousins), presidential libraries are privately funded institutions that hold the papers of US presidents, predicated on the notion that the documents of a president are personal property. Some of the most famous presidential libraries, at least from an architectural point of view, include the Kennedy Library designed by I.M. Pei and the Clinton Library designed by James Stewart Polshek. (Technically the ongoing Obama Presidential Center designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien will not include the presidential library of Barack Obama, as his library is fully digital.) When built, the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library would become the 14th physical US Presidential Library.

Following the release of an architectural brief in December 2019, the foundation leading the competition for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library selected fourteen teams in April 2020 and then one month later chose Henning Larsen, Snøhetta, and Studio Gang as the three finalists. Their designs were released to the public yesterday, and next month a winner will be announced. Below are renderings of the three entries, with excerpts from the architects' descriptions.

Henning Larsen

Image: Henning Larsen

In a single, dark February day in 1884, Theodore Roosevelt’s mother and wife passed within hours of each other – an event he commemorated in his diary: “The light has gone out of my life.” Deep in grief, he journeyed from New York City to Medora, North Dakota, where his time in the Badlands would come to transform and define him as the man, conservationist, and American civic icon we remember today. 

The Henning Larsen + Nelson Byrd Woltz design team made the same journey across the United States in early June 2020 to visit the site for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. Our vision for the project is rooted in the landscape and community that Roosevelt came to love – a landscape and community as rich and resilient today as it was when Roosevelt lived in it nearly 150 years ago.

Image: Henning Larsen

The building is comprised of four volumes that peek up from the butte, each a formal reference to the geography of the Badlands. With the tower (the Legacy Beacon) a visible landmark, the library becomes a hub for community and fluid threshold over which visitors can cross into the sprawling majesty of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The four volumes link underground along a continuous narrative trail where Roosevelt’s legacy – the roots of the project – is exhibited and experienced.

From the lobby, visitors follow a sloping spiral path down to the exhibition level, where they encounter seats that encircle a hearth. It is here that the journey begins, gathered together around the fire as Roosevelt himself would have done. The path, entitled The Hero’s Journey, is not just an exhibition of his life, work, and legacy, but is also a showcase for the landscape. Each phase of the exhibition is punctuated by a space that overlooks a different aspect of the surroundings, showing off the changing nature of the Badlands from every vista and vantage. Where the exhibition spaces at the start are dark, lit by soft daylight that streams in from above, the final stop bathes them in full daylight as they are presented with a panoramic view onto the Library and landscape from the Legacy Beacon (whose form echoes the iconic markers on the Maah Daah Hey trail).

Image: Henning Larsen


Image: Snøhetta

Snøhetta’s design for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is informed by the President’s personal reflections on the landscape, his interest in environmental stewardship, and periods of quiet introspection and civic engagement. The design of the Library is more than a building, it is a journey preserving the existing landscape of diverse habitats punctuated with small pavilions allowing for reflection and activity. Its gently sloping roof looks to the northeast, gazing out to the National Park, historical settings in the Little Missouri River valley, and the Elkhorn Ranch far in the distance, further connecting the Library of tomorrow with its origins from the past.

The main building for the Presidential Library is defined by its unique roof rising from the butte, echoing the landforms of the surrounding Badlands. Visitors can ascend the accessible rooftop to discover commanding views of the National Park and Medora during the day, as well as an ideal location for stargazing at night. Inside the Library, large windows highlight views to historically significant landscapes and complement the rhythm of the interactive exhibitions within. A generous covered porch overlooks the nearby valleys and can be used for gatherings throughout the year.

Image: Snøhetta

The Library also functions in harmony with the unique ecology of the region and expresses the conservation ethos for which Roosevelt is remembered. Its construction will use natural and renewable materials, while its sophisticated energy systems will set a new standard for sustainable design in the region. Our design is oriented to diminish the impact of wind and other climatic factors so that the Library will be accessible in all seasons.

Facing northeast, the new Library looks onto the Little Missouri River, the former military camp called the Cantonment, and the original train depot in where T.R. first arrived in the area. A parking option at Pacific Avenue nearby these locations, which we call the Depot, will allow visitors to connect easily to the town, the National Park, and the Library. A caravan from the Depot will bring visitors on a dramatic electric train ride through a nearby wash to the Library atop the butte. This electric caravan can be expanded over time to support an ecosystem of destinations in Medora and the National Park.

Image: Snøhetta

Studio Gang

Image: Studio Gang

Studio Gang and OLIN’s Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is conceived as a basecamp embedded in the North Dakota Badlands—a transformative gathering place where immersion in T.R.’s story and the surrounding environment brings people together to find common ground and inspires and equips them to launch back into the world with renewed passion and purpose.

Like one of the Badlands’ fantastic rock formations, the building emerges from the land as if carved away by water and wind. The building is composed of three, horseshoe-shaped elements that organize the different functions of the Library. Each horseshoe houses the distinct activities on the inside while simultaneously embracing the dramatic outdoor environment, creating protected gardens and terraces that offer varied views of the landscape, showcase native plant communities, and provide habitat for wildlife.

Image: Studio Gang

The spaces between the volumes act like the cracks in the Badlands’ clay-rich soil, allowing light and air to enter the interior. At the building’s heart, the three horseshoes tilt upward to form a grand, dome-like central space from which all of the activities of the Library can be seen and explored.

Importantly, the design treats architecture and landscape as symbiotic and intimately connected with the site’s greater ecology. Informed by nature’s means of resilience in the harsh conditions of the Badlands, the project’s passive and active green strategies work together to achieve a net-zero, carbon-neutral Library with a healthy, inspiring environment full of natural light and fresh air. In addition, the design integrates an ecological restoration and management plan for the entire site that will heal and renew the surrounding ecosystems over time, making the Library a living model for how people, wildlife, and agriculture can coexist and thrive.

Image: Studio Gang

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