When the George W. Bush Presidential Center is officially dedicated today in Dallas, a former Clemmons resident can say he played a key role in making the historic occasion a reality. Jim Pearson, who spent most of his younger days in Clemmons and graduated from West Forsyth in 1988, was the lead designer on the project for Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York City. Pearson plans to be there for the dedication, which will include President Obama and President Bush’s three living predecessors, as part of a star-studded guest list for the invitation-only event. “I’ve been invited, but I don’t know where they’ll put my chair,” Pearson said. “They’ve got a lot of people invited, so there’s not much space. I’m looking forward to going down.”
For Pearson, the dedication culminates five years of work as the project architect for the Bush Center, which is home to the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum and the George W. Bush Institute. Pearson, who started working for RAMSA in 2001, said that the timing was right for him to be chosen for this special assignment. “I kind of lucked out on being selected in the office to work on the Bush Library,” he said. “I’m not exactly sure what it was other than most of my projects were finishing up, and I was going to be available.
Through all the projects I’ve done, some of which were fairly large and complex, I was one of the ones available that they felt would be able to handle the complexity of the project and kind of its intense nature.” “The project first came into our office in the winter of 2007. There was an interview process in Washington D.C. President Bush was not part of the selection process. I’m sure it was discussed with him, but he was not in the room.” When RAMSA got the word it has been selected, it wasn’t known then where the Bush Center would be built. But Laura Bush was a graduate of Southern Methodist in Dallas, and that was also where the Bushes were planning to move after leaving the White House. “It was a natural fit,” said Pearson, who got to work very closely with the First Lady. “We got started on the project in about June 2008. Mrs. Bush was the one who was heading up the design in terms of reviews and making design decisions. She was aided by the design committee. We met every three months or so with her and the design committee. We would present them reports on our progress, get their feedback and their suggestions.” Pearson said that a visit to Washington in December 2008 for a meeting with Mrs. Bush was one to remember.
“It was their last Christmas in the White House,” he said. “It was pretty cool. When we went in, everything was decorated, and we got a quick little tour. It was a standout meeting, and we had about 15 minutes with President Bush in the Oval Office.” Pearson said that most of the meetings were with Mrs. Bush, but he did have a few brief encounters with the former president, including spending some time with him during construction when they toured the building.
“He has a wicked sense of humor,” Pearson said. “He has a very, very quick wit, and that’s not really something that comes across (from his public image). He is very direct. If he wants to tell you something, he just tells it to you. There’s no reading between the lines.” As for Mrs. Bush, Pearson said she was a delight to work with on the project. “She was great to work with,” he said “She was very decisive. She knew what she wanted. She wanted it to feel welcoming, not overwhelming. The decision process was quick. The perception of her is pretty much what she is.”
The design portion of the project lasted until the summer of 2009, followed by the construction/technical drawings in the fall. They were issued in August 2010, and the official groundbreaking took place in November 2010.
“They had two years to complete the building,” Pearson said, “and they received the certificate of occupancy in December 2012.” The three-story brick and limestone building, with 260,000 square feet of space, has a projected price tag of $250 million for the overall project.
Pearson said that each presidential library takes on the personality of that president, but the Bush Center is unique in that the policy institute is under the same roof. “And while other libraries have a full-size replica of the Oval Office, this one will have an Oval Office where people can actually walk into,” he said. “Right beside that is a garden that kind of a Texas take on the Rose Garden. That’s where they make many big announcements and is an important part of the story of any president. “When you go through the exhibits, you’re hit with a lot of heavy stuff, like the events of September 2011 and what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was felt that as a part of museum experience, you need somewhere to go and decompress. It’s a really neat space. If you’ve been there before, you feel like you’re really in a space just like the one in Washington.”
Pearson, 43, is the son of Ray and Carol Pearson of Clemmons. He received a bachelor’s degree from UNC-Charlotte in art (1992) and architecture (1993) before taking a job out of college with Kendall-Heaton Associates in Houston. Pearson worked there for seven years before deciding to go to graduate school at Yale University. He received his master’s degree in architecture in 2001 and then landed the position with RAMSA. Pearson actually was in town over the weekend for a quick visit with his parents. “Clemmons has changed a lot since I was young,” he said. “It’s not as rural, much more suburban, and there’s a lot more development, a lot more traffic.” Still, it’s no New York City.
“Here things are a little slower and relaxed about everyday things,” Pearson said. “Everything there is go, go, go. Sometimes there’s a lot of stress.” Pearson can’t believe the project that has consumed is life for since 2008 has come to end “I don’t know that has all sunk in,” he said. “When you get involved in something for such a long time, it’s hard to step back and put it in perspective. But I will say that there is a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.
“One of the things that stands out in my mind is getting to work with the First Lady of the United States closely. People are happy with what we did there. People who work there like it. People that were involved in the design are happy with it. People who built it are ecstatic. There’s also a sense of relief that all that has come to pass and people are happy with it.”
The Bush Center will open to the public on May 1.