Roosevelt library project gains steam, plans 2025 opening in western North Dakota
Private fundraising efforts continue, but the foundation reached $100 million in private donations last year, half of which came from Melani and Rob Walton, of the Walmart fortune.
BISMARCK — Once viewed as a far-fetched and floundering project, the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library slated for Medora, N.D., is on a clear path to fruition, promoters say.
The team behind the project has been solidified, and the steps the group needs to take to open the library's doors in summer 2025 are well-defined, said library foundation CEO Ed O'Keefe.
Here's where the project stands and the timeline going forward.
What's the plan?
The proposed library is meant to honor and recount the complex story of Theodore Roosevelt, the one-time governor of New York who became the 26th president of the United States. As a young man, Roosevelt spent parts of three years hunting and ranching in present-day western North Dakota before his career in national politics took off.
The library foundation is working to acquire 93 acres of land near Medora, an Old West-theme tourist town on the western edge of the state. The land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, but lawmakers in Washington have paved the way for the foundation to purchase the property. O'Keefe said the organization will likely shell out between $100,000 and $150,000 for the land, which it hopes to acquire as soon as this summer.
Private fundraising efforts continue, but the foundation reached $100 million in private donations last year, half of which came from Melani and Rob Walton, of the Walmart fortune. The milestone figure unlocked public funding that the group will likely begin receiving later this year via a commonly misunderstood state endowment. The foundation will get the interest that accumulates on a $50 million state investment made through the North Dakota Board of University and School Lands. Since last fall, the foundation has also raised an additional $4 million, O'Keefe said.
Last summer, the foundation selected renowned Norwegian-American architecture firm Snøhetta to design the library following a competition that drew big-name outfits from around the world. The winning design aims to complement the rugged scenery of the Badlands and features a gently sloped, walkable roof.
The physical building, by far the most expensive part of the project, will come with a price tag of more than $100 million, though the cost has not yet been finalized, O'Keefe said.
Between now and the desired opening day in 2025, O'Keefe said there's a four-step process the foundation needs to complete.
First comes the design concept phase, which will be finished in the next six weeks. It involved picking Snøhetta and " accounting for everything we want this building to be," O'Keefe said.
Then, there's the schematic design phase where the foundation will work with architects to iron out the specifics of the building's dimensions and features. O'Keefe said the foundation will be able to display a completed design concept with modeling in August, but the phase will likely take until the end of the year.
Next begins the long phase of review by engineers, ecologists and others to get the necessary construction documentation in order.
Finally, the foundation hopes to break ground and begin a two-year construction process in 2023, O'Keefe said.
Off to the side, an interpretive design firm called Local Projects will help form the content for the museum's exhibits and decide how to tell Roosevelt's story to visitors.
Who's behind the project?
O'Keefe, a Grand Forks native and former journalist, works with a board of trustees that includes several names that would be recognizable to most North Dakotans.
Melani Walton, a Dickinson State University graduate and eastern Montana native, has been heavily involved in selecting an architectural design . Rob Walton, a billionaire former chairman of Walmart, is a "non-board advisor" on the project.
The foundation announced Wednesday, May 5, that Linda Pancratz will lead the board. The Grand Forks native and University of North Dakota graduate is the CEO and chairwoman of investment company Mountain Capital.
The board also includes Kermit Roosevelt, a law professor and the great-great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt; Serena Roosevelt, a communications professional married to descendent Theodore Roosevelt V; Eileen Scheel, whose husband, Steve, chairs the board for Fargo-based sporting goods company Scheels; and Victoria Chambers, a former executive at Fargo-based biotech giant Aldevron who is married to company executive chairman Michael Chambers.
Rounding out the board are retired law firm partner Vaughn Williams, historian Stephen Beckham, nonprofit boss Eric Jolly and Robert Lauf, a former advisor to Gov. Doug Burgum.
The foundation also announced the appointment of Douglas Brinkley as the first "historian in residence" for the library. Brinkley, a professor at Rice University in Houston and history commentator for CNN, has done extensive research on Roosevelt and authored "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America," a 2009 book about the president's trailblazing environmental policies.
Brinkley plans to live in Medora this summer and give lectures and "interpretive history hikes" to visitors, according to a press release.
The historian told Forum News Service it's "mind-boggling" that Roosevelt doesn't have his own presidential library, and paired with a nearby national park in his name, Medora is the ideal location for such an institution.
Brinkley said he has encyclopedic knowledge of Roosevelt, and he'll work with designers on a day-to-day basis as a historical resource. He said the library and museum should reflect Roosevelt's spirit by detailing his legacy of conservation, love of the military and groundbreaking political career.