Lady Bird Johnson: The Mastermind Behind the LBJ Presidential Library

Today’s post comes from Emily Niekrasz, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

At the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library dedication on May 22, 1971, President Johnson proclaimed, “We have papers from my four decades of public service in one place for friend and foe to judge, to approve or disapprove.”

Only two and a half years after he  left office, President Johnson’s library and museum opened for students and researchers. What facilitated this quick transition from Presidential office to Presidential library?

More like “who.”

Soon after President Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964, Lady Bird Johnson began planning the early foundations of a Presidential library.

When a reporter asked President Johnson if anyone in his family was involved in the planning, the President responded, “I did not have to designate anyone. Mrs. Johnson appointed herself.”

Within weeks of President Johnson’s victory, the First Lady had already solidified a location for the library.

By simply mentioning to William H. Heath, chair of the Board of Regents at the University of Texas at Austin, that she and the President were considering potential sites for a Presidential library, she was almost immediately presented with an unprecedented proposal.

In February 1965, Heath proposed not only to donate land from the University of Texas but also to provide the funds to construct President Johnson’s library and establish a Johnson School of Public Affairs on campus.

While previous Presidential libraries depended on extensive fundraising efforts to finance their institutions, the Johnsons could focus their efforts elsewhere.

With the location of the library already established, Lady Bird Johnson’s next step was to explore the functions of the other Presidential libraries. Exploring the Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower libraries, Lady Bird observed both the museum displays and the extent to which the Presidential papers were available and used.

Taking in the designs and displays of the other libraries, the First Lady set off to find the most suitable architect for the job. In order to find the best candidate, Mrs. Johnson toured Yale and Princeton Universities and embarked on an architectural tour of New York City.

Narrowing the list to three potential architects, the First Lady presented the candidates to President Johnson.

Upon meeting the President’s approval during a day-long visit to the Johnson ranch, Gordon Bunshaft was hired to be the architect of the LBJ Presidential Library. Working tirelessly for the President, Bunshaft completed his final designs in the summer of 1966, and by the end of 1967, construction began on the new institution.

Once Lady Bird Johnson had solidified the future library’s location and architect, her efforts transitioned to planning the museum exhibits.

For the entire year in 1968, Lady Bird Johnson hosted planning meetings at the White House, often discussing designs with Bunshaft, Heath, Archivist of the United States Dr. Wayne Grover, various other leaders, and sometimes even President Johnson himself.

Perhaps the First Lady’s most significant contribution to the LBJ Presidential Library displays was her push for an exact replica of Johnson’s Oval Office. Although Bunshaft initially resisted this idea, President Johnson believed that this replica would greatly attract the public, and it was added to the overall design.

With plans in order, the majority of President Johnson’s papers and material objects were moved from Washington, DC, to Austin, TX, from December 26, 1968, to January 15, 1969.

Two and a half years after this move, the LBJ Presidential Library was officially opened to the public, and soon after, an education center was established.

After the President’s sudden death in 1973, Lady Bird Johnson continued to dedicate her time to the library. Although President Johnson wished his secret White House tapes to be closed for 50 years after his death, with Mrs. Johnson’s approval, these recordings were processed and opened to the public in the early 1990s.

Leon Moed, an architect who worked closely with Bunshaft on the project, reflected: “Lady Bird was really the client for all intents and purposes. LBJ trusted her, and she rolled up her shirt-sleeves and got down to work.”

To learn more about President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson, plan your visit to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, TX.

And for more information about President Johnson, visit the library’s website and explore the numerous online resources.

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