Obama marks milestone in construction of presidential center
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Obama marks milestone in construction of presidential center
The construction site of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, on Monday, June 10, 2024. Nine years after selecting Chicago as the home for his presidential center, former President Barack Obama celebrated the structure reaching its full height. (Akilah Townsend/The New York Times)

by Mitch Smith

CHICAGO, IL.- As construction projects go, Barack Obama’s presidential center has not been the speediest or the simplest. Far from it.

But on Monday, 3,317 days after Obama announced plans to put the facility in Chicago, the former president was in town to celebrate the long-awaited structure reaching its full height, rising 225 feet above the city’s South Side. If all goes according to plan, the center will open to the public in 2026.

“When we started this thing, I wasn’t sure it was ever going to get done,” Obama said jokingly before using a black marker to sign a beam that will be installed at the center, where work on the building’s interior wall-framing and plumbing has started.

Many Chicagoans celebrated in 2015 when Obama announced that the center would be built in their city, where he worked as a community organizer and won election to the Illinois General Assembly and U.S. Senate. But landing the project turned out to be the easy part.

After the announcement, Obama took about a year to decide which plot to build on, eventually settling on land in Jackson Park near Lake Michigan and the University of Chicago. Residents raised concerns about gentrification, and parks advocates filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the center was an improper use of public land. The groundbreaking ceremony in 2021 came more than a full presidential term after Obama, America’s first Black president, left office.

But steadily, the facility has been taking shape, and the South Side has been preparing for the influx of tourists that the museum is expected to bring. The concrete structure now towers above Stony Island Avenue, and the stone facade is taking shape.

The ceremony Monday came at an uncertain political moment. Many polls show President Joe Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, trailing former President Donald Trump in key swing states. Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip has divided the Democratic base. And parts of the coalition that elected Obama to two terms in the White House have told pollsters that they are warming to Republicans.

Obama made no reference to those issues during the brief event, at which he thanked construction workers for their efforts and spoke about the importance of American laborers, but took no questions from reporters.

“Every day, all across this country, here in Chicago, working people are putting on their boots and their hard hat and they’re doing work, making things happen, and a lot of times we take it for granted,” Obama told the workers, adding that “hopefully for decades to come, every time people come by, they will be seeing a little bit of your work.”

Ernest Brown, president of Brown & Momen, one of the contractors leading the construction, said the structure was being built to last, and “on the inside it’s just a spectacular space.”

“Because of COVID, it’s taken a lot of time to get certain materials, so we have to do a lot of planning, prepurchasing, and it’s all coming together,” said Brown, who estimated that construction would continue for another year and a half.

Obama has outlined a vision for his center’s 19-acre campus that includes some of the usual trappings of presidential libraries, including a replica Oval Office and exhibits from his time in the White House.

But the plans also call for meeting spaces, a vegetable garden, a gym and a Chicago Public Library branch. Obama, who still owns a house on the South Side but spends most of his time in Washington, has described the facility not just as a museum, but also as a gathering place for people in the neighborhood and training ground for future leaders.

The Obama Presidential Center will not be an official presidential library nor be operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. Breaking recent precedent, Obama opted instead for a privately operated facility that would receive some artifacts on loan from the archives, an approach that has concerned some historians. The National Archives does operate what it calls its “first fully digital presidential library” about Obama’s tenure.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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