Roosevelt Presidential Library Relocated from Dickinson

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum Foundation has abandoned a proposal that would have split the museum and library between Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Dickinson State University.

man and horse

Theodore Roosevelt In the Badlands of Dakota Territory, 1884
Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Dickinson State University

Theodore Roosevelt left a storied legacy from his two terms in office (1901–09), including early action around workplace reform, women’s suffrage, and environmental conservation. But the 26th president does not yet have a presidential library dedicated to his archives—and a recent change of plans by the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (TRPLM) Foundation may further delay its establishment. The Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed to spearhead plans for the TRPLM, has abandoned a two-site proposal that would have split the project’s components—museum and library—between Theodore Roosevelt National Park, near Medora, ND, and Dickinson State University (DSU), some 36 miles to the east.

The Foundation had announced in March that it planned to build the museum at the park site and the library at DSU; DSU’s Stoxen Library currently hosts the Theodore Roosevelt Center, a digital collection of Roosevelt’s correspondence and diaries, as well as articles, cartoons, photographs, films, scrapbooks, and other Roosevelt ephemera. However, in May the foundation reversed its original decision, and voted to build both facilities in the park.

The two dissenting votes were cast by Sen. Majority Leader Rich Wardner and Rep. Vicky Steiner (both R-Dickinson). In a statement after the vote, Wardner called the decision “a hijacking.”

“GREAT VISION. WRONG PLACE”

Among other issues, the board’s decision has resulted in the loss of funding already in place for the library project.

In 2013, the North Dakota Legislative Assembly passed a Department of Commerce bill appropriating $12 million for the library, with the stipulation that the grant must be matched by an additional $3 million from non-state sources, and that construction must begin by the end of 2018. Although the legislation did not specify a site, the grant money was intended to build on the existing work being done at the TR Center.

The city of Dickinson pledged the $3 million in question in 2014, the same year that the foundation was incorporated, which brought available funding to $15 million. A local feasibility study estimated the project at $100 million—$60 million for construction and $40 for endowment—creating an $85 million fundraising requirement. When the foundation board of trustees met for the first time in February 2015, recalled board chair Bruce Pitts, “Locating the TRPL in Dickinson seemed a fait accompli, as DSU was the home of the digitization project.”

But when trustees began to speak with prospective national supporters of the TRPLM, said Pitts, they found a lack of strong support for a project of that size in Dickinson. “The common response was, ‘Great project. Great vision. Wrong place. This world-class facility belongs in the Badlands, where TR transformed himself,’” Pitts told LJ.

At a foundation meeting in April, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum raised additional concerns that the construction deadline could rush the building process and potentially impact fundraising. On May 14, the foundation’s Board of Trustees voted 9–2 to locate the entire TRPLM in or near Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

FUNDING LOST

man in front of Grand Canyon

Theodore Roosevelt at Yosemite, 1903
Courtesy of the National Park Service and Dickinson State University

Of the $12 million appropriation, $2.2 million has already been spent. Roughly $1.5 million was used for early phases of planning and design—“How the building will be used, what programming must it support, what TR stories will we tell, what will the visitor experience be, etc.,” Pitt explained. That work can be carried over into the next phase of planning no matter where the library is built. Approximately $700,000 of the state’s appropriation was used, with the state’s permission, for non-construction expenses such as fundraising, staff, public relations, and office space.

The rest of the money, however, is now off the table—as is the $3 million from the city of Dickinson, which has been withdrawn now that the library will not be built on DSU property.

The change of plans will also mean terminating the 99-year lease of the 27-acre former rodeo grounds at DSU, which the foundation negotiated in 2016. The North Dakota Board of Higher Education has suggested that the foundation pay DSU more than $91,000 to rebuild the school’s rodeo grounds, which are currently located off site.

The entire TRPLM project is estimated to cost $150 million. At present, $9.8 million in state funds and $2.7 million in city funds remain in its coffers. The foundation hopes that the state will choose to carry out its investment when it convenes in January 2019. Gov. Burgum has stated that he will go back to the legislature and seek further funding, including money to support digitization efforts at DSU’s TR Center, and a national campaign is in the works.

Critics of the decision have also expressed concerns that the park is less accessible to scholars during the region’s long winter months. But the foundation feels that keeping both facilities together is a more logical choice, and that the TRPLM in Medora will also bring scholars to Dickinson. “We have good reason to believe that the economic benefit to Dickinson from our facility in the Badlands will far exceed a facility on the DSU campus,” said Pitts.

DIGITIZING TR

man seated at desk

Theodore Roosevelt in his library at Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, New York
Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Dickinson State University

Roosevelt first visited the Badlands in 1883, when he was 24. Although he only lived there for three years before returning to the east coast and a political career, the area was close to his heart and has long been associated with his legacy. The Medora park was originally designated the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area in 1935, renamed the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park by President Truman in 1947, and in 1978 enlarged and established as the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

DSU, which celebrates its centennial this year, has strong ties to his history as well, hosting a Theodore Roosevelt Honors Leadership Program and Roosevelt scholars. A Roosevelt Symposium is scheduled for September 20–22. The digitization project began ten years ago, prompted by Theodore Roosevelt Humanities Scholar Clay Jenkinson together with TR Center project manager Sharon Kilzer.

Roosevelt’s papers are scattered across the country, and project partners include the Library of Congress, Harvard University’s Houghton Library, the National Park Service, and Sagamore Hill National Historic Site (Roosevelt’s New York birthplace). Material is either digitized at the center or received in digital form. The staff of three adds documentation and metadata, crosslinking items for ease of discovery. As of April the TR Center had cataloged nearly 60,000 items, with more than 50,000 of those available in the digital library.

Since the Foundation has pulled the TRPLM from the DSU campus, the TR Center plans to focus on its own growth. “We will take up that mantle ourselves,” DSU president Thomas Mitzel told LJ.

What that progress will look like is still unsure, potentially involving renovation of the existing library or a new building to house the project, said Mitzel. “We have a local committee who is quite committed to help with that TR Center. We've begun our own meetings in the city of Dickinson, and are going to begin our own donor outreach." Because DSU is located on state land, new construction would involve permission from the state legislature, and the university has begun to assemble the necessary paperwork. The project itself has been endowed largely through funding from the state, and Mitzel intends to make the fundraising process a priority—potentially building a dedicated endowment around the center.

It’s important to keep the previous momentum of enthusiasm for the project going, he noted, adding, “Our goal is to ensure that it only strengthens and has greater outreach as we go forward."

Mitzel plans to increase the center’s staff to eight in order to complete the rest of the Roosevelt documentation in another 15 years—although, he cautioned, "The reality is digitization will probably never be completed…. Every time we think we have found all the material down a particular pathway, more items emerge.”

In turn, the foundation hopes that its work, and that of the center, will complement each other. “It is our desire that the work of archiving remain at DSU and that the TRPLM be additive in supporting, accelerating and funding that work,” said Pitts. “When people visit the TRPL in-person or online, we want DSU’s superb work to be visible, honored and enjoyed.”

"DSU is extremely proud of the TR Center and what it has accomplished,” Mitzel told LJ. “We are proud of the support we've gotten from the state of North Dakota to ensure the project has been as successful as it has. We're extremely proud of the support we've been getting from the city of Dickinson throughout all of the foundation's change of mind and change of location.”

He added, “I wish them the best of luck with their decision. What we want to do is continue to strengthen what it is we have in the city of Dickinson, and I think building our own center around the core of the digitization project is going to be beneficial not just for DSU, not just for the city of Dickinson, but for [all] of North Dakota, and that's where our focus will now be.”

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