In the 20th century, starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt, American presidents began to design their own legacies, with presidential libraries that often served as their burial ground. Going back to George Washington, however, there has always been a cult of remembrance around presidential birthplaces, homes, and final resting places. Even if the ownership and history of those sites are frequently complex.
Executive Decisions: The Personal Landscape Legacy of American Presidents at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Culver City, California, is exhibiting their photographic journey into the “terrestrial manifestations” of 44 presidencies. You can also view the slideshows in an online exhibition. CLUI is a research and education organization devoted to exploring the human interaction and impact with the land, such as urban waterfalls, or the pastoral intentions of golf courses.
“Our exhibit is a kind of national cultural archaeology through the lens of presidential identity,” Matthew Coolidge, CLUI program manager, told Hyperallergic. He added that the project doesn’t look at the influence of their policies directly, rather “the identity of the presidents themselves, the person they aspired to be, or wished to be remembered as.”
There is already speculation on how President-Elect Donald Trump could disrupt the American landscape through climate policy or national monuments. There will inevitably be his legacy of personal iconization wrought in the gilded environment of this child of wealth, and his future ostentatious grave site. Trump’s childhood home, a subdued Tudor house in the Jamaica Estates of Queens, is currently up for sale, with the owners, who purchased it in 2008 for $782,500, hoping to sell for up to $10 million.
Will it become a museum, perhaps like the Clinton House in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which has a garden of the favorite flowers of all the first ladies? Or could it be more like George H. W. Bush’s childhood home in Milton, Massachusetts, whose current owners care little for his politics, and have resisted any commemoration? And then there’s Trump’s mausoleum, an obelisk-adorned behemoth planned for the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. The New Yorker reported that the former mayor of Bedminster, Robert Holtway, has proclaimed it the sort of place “in Austria where a Nazi war criminal was buried.”
Executive Decisions ends its nearly 300 years of history with Barack Obama, who has only one photograph representing his presidential terrain — which could include Honolulu, Jakarta, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago, all places in which he spent part of his childhood. The stories presented in the exhibition, with commentary from CLUI’s trek through these terrestrial paths, are sometimes strange in their mundane details, sometimes bedecked with pomp. A 1/10 scale version of the Washington Monument guards the birthplace of the first president in Virginia. A 31-foot pyramid constructed by 35 men who moved 300 tons of material with a specially built railroad remembers the birthplace of James Buchanan.
Franklin Pierce’s New Hampshire log cabin birth site is now beneath a reservoir named for him: Franklin Pierce Lake. Lyndon B. Johnson’s herd of Hereford cattle still roams his Texas ranch, while Chester Arthur’s Manhattan house where he died is almost forgotten. Only a small plaque remembers him, the building itself holding apartments and a spice shop. Meanwhile, William McKinley’s childhood home was cut in half in the 19th century, part relocating to an amusement park, until it was brought together by a real estate developer in 1909 to preside over a housing development. In 1937, it burned down, and now a parking lot is in its place.
“All of us leave our mark on the ground as we pass through life, mostly faintly,” Coolidge stated. “The impression left by these people, outsized and powerful, is maybe the largest left by anyone. And when it’s not, that’s interesting too. Looking at the personal landscapes of all of the presidents is to take an inventory of our leadership overall, and our collective aspirations, since it was we the people, in the various forms that has been over the years, that voted them in. It’s a self-examination of the national corpus, something that is instructive, whether we learn anything from it or not.”
Executive Decisions: The Personal Landscape Legacy of American Presidents continues through November 27 at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (9331 Venice Boulevard, Culver City, California).