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A modern building housing the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on Boston’s waterfront. Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock

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John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum marking 40 years in 2019

I.M. Pei-designed complex in Columbia Point remains key Boston waterfront attraction

One of the many milestones that 2019 will bring in the Boston region is the 40th anniversary of the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester’s Columbia Point on October 20, 1979.

President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy, JFK’s younger brother, were among the speakers during that dedication. (The Boston Pops also performed.)

The complex, which I.M. Pei designed originally, remains not only the repository for most things related to the nation’s 35th president but one of the Boston waterfront’s prime attractions and the touchstone for all presidential libraries that have come since.

Plans for the JFK library started while Kennedy was still in officethe Brookline native wanted his library to be a scholarly hub for research more than a monument to himself—and accelerated after his assassination in November 1963.

The JFK library was originally supposed to be in Cambridge, at a site on the banks of the Charles River near the very Harvard College that Kennedy had graduated from in 1940. But, as a New York Times piece from February 1975 notes, those plans collapsed following vociferous local opposition (sound familiar?).

[I]n recent years, the project has met with sharp criticism from residents from surrounding neighborhoods who feared it would attract hordes of tourists, automobiles, fast food franchises and souvenir shops into the already congested Harvard Square area. ... The Library Corporation is now looking for a new site.

It found it fairly quickly in a then-remote area of Dorchester—though another site, along Soldiers Field Road near Harvard Stadium in Boston, had also been considered. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote of the proposed Dorchester site in August 1976:

The out of‐the—way site called Columbia Point, houses the massive, blocky structures of a commuter campus of the University of Massachusetts and it is in sharp contrast to the mellow and urbane atmosphere of the library’s original site near Harvard Square in Cambridge.

But the new site is not expected to incur the community opposition that drove the library from Cambridge, where residents feared the influx of tourists, it would bring.

Backers, officials, and Turner Construction Company of Boston broke ground in June 1977. Construction took just over two years. The original library-slash-museum ran to 115,000 square feet. It reached its current 164,000 square feet with two additions. The first, in 1991, was the Stephen E. Smith Center, named for the Kennedy in-law who originally spearheaded the complex’s creation. The second was an archive-storage section in 2012.

Pei’s original 1970s design remains striking, partly due to that waterfront location—it just stands out—and partly due to the novelty of the architect’s approach to what might have been a staid, academic building.

As it stands, the most recognizable feature of the JFK library is a nine-story, white precast concrete tower that runs to 125 feet. It is connected to a glass-enclosed pavilion that reaches 115 feet.

I.M. Pei seeing the finished JFK library for the first time on October 16, 1979, a few days before its official dedication.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

The museum-library was rededicated in October 1993—President Bill Clinton did the honors this time—amid that first 1991 expansion and a refocusing of what the complex was supposed to convey. By 1993, there was an entire generation of Americans with no living memory of JFK. The museum-library, then, became less about lamenting the 46-year-old president’s untimely death to celebrating his life and the aspirations he called upon.

“What we owe John Kennedy today at this museum,” Clinton said at the rededication, “is to make the museum come alive not only in our memories but in our actions.”

As it marks its 40th year, the JFK library remains not only the premiere center for research into the life and times of the 35th president, but for information on the Kennedy family and—oddly enough—for information on Ernest Hemingway.

The writer’s widow, Mary Welsh, and others donated what has turned out to be 90 percent of Hemingway’s known manuscript materials. That makes the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum the main research hub regarding the Nobel laureate, too.

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