WEST BRANCH, Iowa – Imagine a sensory experience of sight and sound that puts you in the middle of the myriad of world-changing issues and challenges that faced Herbert Hoover before, during and after his presidency. Imagine being so inspired by the life of public service that he and first lady Lou Henry Hoover lived that you decide to create positive change in your own community.
It’s that kind of experience – and much more — that’s being planned for the $20 million “reimagining” of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch. The enhanced museum experience will bring the story of the Hoovers to a new generation of visitors with the latest technology creating an immersive and emotional experience.
The same firm behind the design of the much-acclaimed Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. – BRC Imagination Arts of Los Angeles – is the creative engine behind the Hoover project.
The plans are creating a lot of excitement in the state, where legislators last year approved $5 million in Hoover Tax Credits to encourage Iowans to donate to the project. And, the new experience at the museum is expected to bring thousands more visitors to the site, which was closed almost two years during the pandemic and is now just rebounding after being open for the past 10 months.
Fundraising is well underway and will receive a boost from an Oct. 7 event at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Cedar Rapids featuring former President George W. Bush, who is being honored, along with former first lady Laura Bush, with the first Hoover Presidential Foundation Great Humanitarian Award.
Jerry Fleagle, president and CEO of the Hoover Presidential Foundation, said the National Archives and Records Administration, which owns and operates the library-museum, requires that 90 percent of the funds are raised before construction (or destruction) at the current site can begin.
As of mid-August, fundraising efforts in the “Timeless Values-Modern Experience” campaign, including cash, pledges and letters of credit, amounted to around $12 million, Mr. Fleagle said. The foundation also has applied for a $5 million Destination Iowa grant.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum was dedicated at the time of the former president’s 88th birthday, on Aug. 11, 1962, as a crowd estimated at 25,000 attended to hear remarks by Mr. Hoover and former President Harry Truman. The two men of different political parties had become good friends in the wake of Mr. Hoover’s assistance to the Truman administration following World War II.
Mr. Hoover quickly answered President Truman’s call to assist with postwar issues of starvation across Europe caused by harsh winters, drought and devastated economies. With his experience addressing issues of massive hunger in Belgium during World War I, Hoover headed the Famine Emergency Committee to get food supplies to the most vulnerable people.
The National Historic Site was rededicated on Aug. 8, 1992, after $6.5 million in renovations, which included the addition of six galleries transporting visitors to various stages of the Hoovers’ lives, and some interactive displays. Former President Ronald Reagan delivered the remarks to a crowd of 5,000. But with 30 years now passing, the Hoover site has gone the longest of any of the presidential libraries without an upgrade.
“Most library museums are usually refreshed every 12 to 15 years,” Mr. Fleagle said. “Herbert Hoover is a great story. We are trying to take it to the next generation.”
The goal is to open the updated museum on Aug. 10, 2024, on what would be the 150th anniversary of Mr. Hoover’s birth, though Fleagle acknowledges it is a tight deadline.
Allan Hoover III, great-grandson of President and Mrs. Hoover, is excited about seeing the couple’s story of public service brought to life for a new generation of visitors.
“There are so many good lessons from their lives,” said Mr. Hoover, 50, who lives in Denver, Colo. “If I were to pick one that resonated with our family, it’s perseverance. During their lives they had to overcome a lot. But they carried on.”
He noted that “Lou and Bert” were a true team, circumnavigating the globe together five times. Their public service, he said, continued until their last days.
In a phone interview, Mr. Hoover spoke of the obstacles his great-grandfather overcame to address massive issues of starvation during World War I and after World War II when President Truman asked for his assistance.
He recalls visiting the 1962 version of the museum as a boy, with “galleries filled with glass cases.” The 1992 renovations “amazed” him. But the capabilities that today’s technology will bring to tell their story to a new generation will put their story in an entirely different framework.
He called BRC Imagination Arts “terrific storytellers.”
“We’re going to be retelling their story in a way to connect with this generation, a new generation since the last renovations,” he said.
That generation includes his own children, a daughter, 19, and sons 16 and 13.
Reaching a new audience
Matthew Solari, vice president and creative designer for BRC Imagination Arts, said his research into the Hoovers has taught him much that he didn’t know about the nation’s 31st president. And he is eager to share that knowledge in a way that makes an impact.
“We are looking at it as an experience, really bringing it alive to people,” he said. “We are taking it out of the realm of standard presentation of material and really creating these touchpoints so people can get to know Herbert and Lou Hoover. We want to get people to know them.”
Mr. Solari said as the BRC team talked to scholars and to the Hoover family, “the more amazed we were, the more proud we were. As human beings and as Americans, he and Lou were among our most exceptional people.”
The new exhibits will take a deep look into Mr. Hoover’s presidency, exploring the Great Depression, which was described as “a war on 1,000 fronts.”
“It was a problem that even the great minds of the day had difficulty figuring out,” Mr. Solari said. “We want people to emotionally feel all of the maelstrom of things happening during that time.”
In learning more about Mr. Hoover’s story, Mr. Solari said he was struck by how the native Iowan, at the height of his success as a mining engineer, turned his back on his financial and professional success and committed his life to public service.
“Everybody I talk to, they are blown away that people don’t know this story,” he said. “It’s so American. We step in and we take care of people. Mr. Hoover basically invented a way for us to do that on a scale that we had not experienced.”
If You Go:
Table sponsorships and individual tickets are still available for an appearance by former President George W. Bush in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Oct. 7, as he and former first lady Laura Bush are honored with the first Hoover Presidential Foundation Great Humanitarian Award.
The Bushes are being recognized for their extensive relief and humanitarian efforts both through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) during the Bush administration as well as their extensive work in African nations after he left office on women’s health care initiatives, including screenings for breast and cervical cancer.
The event will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Cedar Rapids. Following presentation of the award, Margaret Hoover, one of Herbert Hoover’s great-granddaughters and host of the PBS series, “Firing Line with Margaret Hoover,” will lead an armchair discussion with the former president. Mrs. Bush will not be attending due to other schedule commitments.
Following dinner will be a short presentation highlighting programs of the foundation and the “Timeless Values-Modern Experience” campaign for extensive renovations at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. Business dress/cocktail attire is requested.
More information on the event can be found at hooverpresidentialfoundation.org.
Jerry Fleagle, president and CEO of the Hoover Presidential Foundation, said the foundation board decided to honor President and Mrs. Bush with its first-ever Great Humanitarian Award just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Everything came to a halt then,” Mr. Fleagle said. “We’re very pleased the president is coming now. A lot of people have fond memories of when he was president.”
According to the foundation, the award was created “to recognize individuals who have demonstrated or provided meritorious and altruistic support to those in need. It is offered in the spirit of Herbert Hoover’s efforts to save millions of western Europeans from starvation dating back to 1914.”