Marvin DeWinter was the architect for the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. DeWinter was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on May 15, 2010 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: First of all, thank you for doing this. Being in this room must bring back a lot of memories.
Smith: How did it all start?
DeWinter: It started by me getting a call from Paul Newhof, (who was a structural engineer), at 12:30 one Friday afternoon. I had a small architectural office of four people, and he asked if I was going to try to get the Ford Museum project. I said that it will probably go to some New York architect. To which he replied, President Ford stated they are going to select an architect from his district. I knew all the architects in his district so I thought that I would throw my hat in the ring and see what happens. So from 12:30 on that Friday (it was due at five o’clock that day), I threw things together showing some of the work that I’d done in the past, and said I’d like to be the architect. From that they narrowed down to seven architects who were invited to be interviewed by a committee of three. From that they narrowed it down to three architects to be interviewed by the full committee – a committee of about twenty-five people.
Smith: Now, this site had already been selected?
DeWinter: This site on the River had been selected, thanks to Mary Ann Keeler. Fred Meijer had a site where the Meijer Gardens are now, and he wanted to have the site out there. Mary Ann said, “It’s got to be downtown.” Later Fred said to me, “Mary Ann was right. It had to be downtown. It’s a stunning place.” I think what really helped get the job was showing them some examples of work that were never built. Based upon the presentation, they selected me as the architect, and then said, “What do we do next?”
said, “First of all, I’d like you to give me about three people to talk to instead of trying to talk to twenty-five people.” Subsequently Jordan Sheperd was appointed as the chairman together with Dave LaClaire and Fred Meijer. That’s how I got acquainted with Fred. I’d known David and Jordan for a long time. Also, I stated that I would I’d like to talk to President Ford if we’re going to design a building to commemorate his Presidency.
Smith: Let me back up for just a moment. Presumably, was he involved? He obviously had to be notified, but was he involved at all in the selection process?
DeWinter: No. President Ford was not involved at all in the selection process. Arrangements were made for me to meet President Ford in Vail in the summer of 1977. I met with him in his condo at Vail and he was the consummate gentleman. Betty was there at the time, but she was not well.
Smith: Was that discernible?
DeWinter: Oh, very much so. She came from one room into our room. It was just President Ford and me, and he very graciously got up and introduced me to her and escorted her back into the private quarters and we went on with our discussion. I said, “President Ford, what would you like this museum to say?” He responded that there were three things: “I’d like to memorialize some of my quotes.” Statements that he made, and these quotes are now reflected engraved in the marble wall at the building’s entrance. Another thing he wanted was to have a part of the museum which celebrated the First Lady. Because the First Lady received many gifts or memorabilia so we established a part of the museum for their display. The third thing that President Ford wanted was a full-size Oval Office. I say full-size because the Truman Library has an abbreviated size. So that was kind of fun. I went to Washington to visit the Oval Office. There were no drawings of it, so we had to measure and create our own drawings for an exact replica which we have here. I then made some trips around – I don’t know if you want me to tell you how I conceived of the design.
Smith: Sure. Let me step back a minute because you talk about the message that he wanted the museum to send and that is obviously critical. But then there is the whole other issue of what he wanted the building to look like. Or what message he wanted the building to send.
DeWinter: He never spoke to me about what the building should look like. He was an ideal client, meaning he didn’t have preconceived ideas about the design. He said he’d like those quotation remarks, a place for Betty, and the Oval Office. Those three things were his only stipulation.
I traveled to Abilene for the Eisenhower Museum, and Independence for Truman’s library. I also went to Washington. At that time the Kennedy Museum was not under construction, but all the drawings were finished and I had the opportunity to look at what they were doing, etc. One of my earliest memories was going through the process of visiting the Eisenhower Museum. There was a windowless room, in which you sat on folding chairs, waiting for the show to start. All I could see was the bald head of the guy right in front of me. It was kind of a depressing entry into the Museum. In talking about the concept, the site that was chosen consisted of three city blocks and if you recall, this site was full of factories.
Smith: And the little red schoolhouse.
DeWinter: Oh, yes, the little red schoolhouse is a story in itself, isn’t it? It mysteriously burned down one night. But getting back to the Design, the chosen site had a beautiful view of the the skyline of the city with an elevated expressway behind us. Would you like me to talk about the concept?
DeWinter: Okay, we established that the building was going to be around 40,000 square feet. The Eisenhower Museum was all on one floor. A one story building would have had no presence at all competing against the elevated expressway behind the site. I felt it had to be at least two stories, so we put about 20,000 square feet on the floor, roughly. I started with this idea and then I wanted to expand the riverfront elevation, and shrink the exposure to the expressway. Finally we arrived at the minimal exposure to the expressway as a point, and we radiated out and so it kind of evolved into a triangular expression and the second thing that I wanted was to have a glass wall exposed to the river. This was never done before and I had all kinds of opposition from Will Jones who was appointed as a consultant to the museum committee. We talked about it. He said we couldn’t do that because we have all these presidential exhibits and the solar radiation, of ultra violet light.
Smith: Yes, the light issues with the artifacts and documents.
DeWinter: I said, “Okay, one way to do that is to have a big overhang.” First of all that’s east, not west, so we have an eastern sun, and the production facility and so on is down below. All the exhibits are up here. And so I picked this corner for administrative offices to block out the sun. And the wall adjacent to the stairway was designed as a non-bearing wall. There is only one bearing point at the end of it. Again, it was to shield the exhibits, and I did everything I could to finally satisfied him that we could have a wall of glass on the river.
Smith: Is the point of the glass wall to, in effect, reflect the city? Which Jerry Ford reflects so many ways?
DeWinter: Oh because it’s mirror glass, yes. And from across the river, it reflects the city. That was by design, as is the fountain and the pool, Would you like to hear about this?
Smith: Yes, we’d love to hear the origins.
DeWinter: See all the serpentine steps walking up to the pool – I wanted to have a reflecting pool in front of the Museum and originally I had a grass bank on the east side of the reflecting pool. We were under construction and one of the committee members, Mary Ann Keeler was walking on the sidewalk and she couldn’t see the pool. She talks to Fred, Fred said, “Mary Ann can’t see that pool, we have to take that pool out.” We already had half the pool built. “I said, “Wait a minute, maybe if I tried something else.” And I did some abstract sketching, and I said, “You know, we’re centered on that little patio out there which is used as a band [stand].” And so I created this, sort of, as bleacher seats for special events when we’re having a concert and, in effect, to give Mary Ann a way to walk up and see the pool. She said she was satisfied, everybody was satisfied, and that’s a little serendipity because it adds to the design.
Smith: It’s become a real community gathering space. And the fountain – was it your initiative? Did other people want a fountain?
DeWinter: Originally, it was my initiative, the fountain came about because at the time there were factories over the west side of the River. The university wasn’t here. And even that bridge that spans the river had only a dirt floor. I reasoned that everybody is attracted to fountains, so let’s put a fountain on the west side of the river. I wanted it to go as high as the building (about forty feet high) as an attraction for people over on the east side of the river to come to the west side. The sort of stepped rapids is kind of an echo of the Grand Rapids, so I wanted to create this pool and rapids. It worked out very well. [The original design did not include that spaceman out there. That came later.]
Smith: Well, it’s become such a signature piece, attraction. It’s almost the equivalent on this side of the river of the Calder on the other side of the river.
DeWinter: Yes, it is!
Smith: It’s a real landmark. Clearly, it’s a defining landmark for Grand Rapids. And, by the way, isn’t it ironic that Gerald Ford, who was not – as attentive as he was as a congressman to his local district – he was never really known as the ‘bring home the bacon’ kind of guy. You don’t have military bases in this district; and yet, the one obvious thing for which he secured funding was the Calder, which you don’t automatically think of as a Gerald Ford kind of piece.
DeWinter: I did not know that. Did President Ford secure the funding when he was our Representative?
Smith: National Endowment for the Arts.
DeWinter: I didn’t know that.
Smith: And you mentioned the spaceman. Because, of course, he didn’t want a statue of himself, and the only advice he gave them – he was delighted with the spaceman – but he said, “Whatever you do, make sure it’s representational art.” He would get the money for the Calder, but he didn’t really want one of his own.
And that brings us to this building, which is fascinating in so many ways because this is a pretty conservative town and I can imagine people at first blush looking at what you had in mind – it’s not avant garde, but it is pushing the envelope in some ways.
Smith: What was the initial reaction? What was the reaction within the group, the planning group, and did it evolve or was pretty much your original vision as you sketched it out, built?
DeWinter: Oh, yes, exactly. I don’t think I had any compromises. I didn’t feel I had to make any compromises. Jordon Sheperd was a very – did you know Jordon?
Smith: I did not as well as I wish I had.
DeWinter: He was a delightful gentleman. And Fred Meijer, of course you know him, and Dave LaClaire, just perfect. David is always interested in the arts and Fred was the businessman. And I’ll tell you a little anecdote about Fred. The fact that we read presidential museums now cost $80 million or $100 million, something like that. We had hardly any money. President Ford had his library in Ann Arbor, he wanted to have a museum in his home district – the first one that split the library and museum.
Smith: And it will never happen again.
DeWinter: I’m glad we have the museum over here. But anyway, raising the money was something. We were just starting construction and the money was not coming in. Fred said to the committee, “Look, if we don’t start, we’re not going to finish. So we’ve got to get started and if we don’t have enough money to finish, well, we’ll just have to truck it out.” He said, “I remember the first time I built a warehouse in Lansing. I had enough money to buy the steel and put it up and I didn’t have enough money to finish the building. We put plywood panels on the thing until I got more money to finish it. And there were big articles in the paper about Meijer’s going broke. But he found more money and finished construction. His point was if we don’t start construction, we’re never going to finish it.” That’s Fred’s philosophy, you know.
Smith: Well, it sounds like Fred was a very significant factor in this.
DeWinter: Oh, he was. For example, when they narrowed it down to three architects, there were three firms, I had the smallest firm – only a four-man firm. There was a medium sized firm about twenty people. And then a large firm, Daverman, which had a hundred people. And so we met at Fred’s office over on Walker Avenue. He said, “Well, now we’ve got you three architects, how do we select one of you? Do we have you come around with ideas that we can look at?” I said, “I have a suggestion, why don’t you set aside an afternoon, give each of the three of us, an hour to tell you why you should hire us to be your architect? We don’t even know what the problems are, how can we propose a solution?” So Fred said, “It seems like a reasonable idea.” A few weeks later at an appointed time we went in and put on our dog and pony show and I was fortunate enough to be the selected architect.
Smith: When you came up with the building design, at some point obviously the group reacted, approved it. At that point, was the President involved?
DeWinter: I don’t recall the President being involved until I was selected and then Fred said, “Well, what do we do now?” I said, “I’d like to have a meeting with President Ford.” (I’d met him years before, just in passing, when he was a representative.) So arrangements were made a few months later to meet with President Ford. To my knowledge, President Ford did not try to manage the design process.
Smith: Right. Do you remember – at some point he saw your model, your design for the first time. He obviously approved of what you’d done.
DeWinter: Yeah, very diplomatically. He didn’t say, “Oh, that’s too modernistic, or that’s…” I can’t say enough about this person as a man. He made a significant move by getting us out of the war, Vietnam, and letting Nixon go free. That’s all part of the history.
Smith: Then, I assume you found yourself working with the exhibit designers. How was the original storyline, for lack of a better word, and the exhibits themselves developed? Was there input from the committee? Was there kind of a give and take, were you consulted? How did that develop? Because obviously there is a symbiotic relationship between the architect and the storytellers.
DeWinter: We worked very well. Staples and Charles were the interior exhibit designers. We worked closely together. When I designed the building I had, thanks to Will Jones, a program that quantified how much space should be used on exhibits and how much space should be allocated for production facilities. I had identified that and, included the grand stairway leading to the second floor. This was an intentional design. I did not want to bring all the people upstairs by way of an elevator. I didn’t feel that it was really necessary because people in a wheelchair had an elevator to take care of them. There is nothing wrong with walking up one flight, if there is an elevator available.
Smith: In terms of the story itself, how that was developed, the exhibits – was it in part from members of the committee?
DeWinter: Jerry Ford ran for Congress in the late 40s and his first office was a Quonset hut. Will Jones was quite instrumental, having a background in exhibits in presidential museums and I don’t think that the committee, Jordan Sheperd, LaClaire and Fred, really got involved in the exhibit design. I know, for example, Will Jones said, he wanted to have all lighting no higher than twelve feet above the floor.
If we have a space frame we can put the lighting at the lower cord of the structure which is twelve feet above the floor. That’s where we have all the lighting. I didn’t want to have a ceiling at that level because it would be only twelve foot high. Consequently, I put the space frame in there which is eight feet deep so we have essentially a twenty foot ceiling but with a lighting grid twelve feet high.
These are some of the things that came about in my interaction with Will Jones and the exhibit. I mentioned the theater on the first floor and the outside glass wall was intentionally designed with an operational curtain. When people are seated waiting for the video to come on, they can enjoy the river and surroundings. Then when the show starts, a motorized track goes back, covering the glass wall with a lightproof curtain. All that was designed with the exhibit designer and me.
Smith: And, in fact, it’s kind of a theatrical element with the curtain.
Smith: The Grand Rapids skyline is almost part of the exhibit.
DeWinter: Exactly. All part of the building and exhibit design.
Smith: When the building, the model, was unveiled and drawings appeared, what kind of local reaction did you get?
DeWinter: I don’t know, but President Ford came during the construction process. He came quite often, every few months. I would greet him and we would walk through the construction project wearing hard hats. Even before we broke ground, however, we had a meeting with the three committee members and President Ford. We had built a model of the building which incidentally, is from this corner to the other corner, 300 feet long.
DeWinter: This façade. Symbolism. Football field is 300 feet long.
DeWinter: It’s a right triangle with the hypotenuse glass wall facing the river.
Smith: This office space, which is clearly an office for him – but was this always intended as Foundation space?
DeWinter: No. The Foundation had nothing to do with this office. This office was for the administrative offices for the museum. And the Foundation, I think, was born out of the need to raise money for the museum.
Smith: But you always intended to have an office for him in the building?
DeWinter: Absolutely. The committee wanted to have an office for him in the building. I think this is about the most spectacular setting for a presidential office anywhere. I’m looking at the picture of President Ford, on the desk, of him beneath the presidential seal. That seal was not part of the program. I built a model of the stairway and that solid corduroy wall needed a focal point. I decided that a ten foot diameter circle of the presidential seal was appropriate and proposed it to the committee. It was carved in place. The seal consists of four five-foot square limestone blocks put together and that represents the ten-foot diameter circle. A marvelous carver was up there on scaffolding – I think it took him the better part of a month with a chisel, laying it out and carving it in place.
Smith: I had no idea. Well, and it turned out to be the perfect and moving backdrop for the lying in state.
DeWinter: Yes. Oh, that reminds me of the memorial garden I visited of the Eisenhower Museum.
Smith: Yeah, what do you think of the chapel, the Place of Meditation? What was your opinion of the little chapel where he is buried?
DeWinter: At Eisenhower? Well, it was okay, but it just didn’t seem to tie into the museum at all.
DeWinter: That was interesting and I said to the Ford committee, “Should I design a memorial gardens or a burial site for the President and his wife?” “Why?” “Well, because Eisenhower has it, Truman has it, there at the museum. They said, “Yes, but how do you talk to the President about something like that?” I said, “It’s part of my job. I’ll talk to him.” So I asked the President the next time I had a meeting with him and he said, “Well, let me talk to Betty about that and I’ll get back to you.” He did talk to Betty and then said, “Yes, that’ll be fine.” I thought that was a good location for the memorial gardens. You probably know that when President Ford died, all they had to do was lift this slab up – the crypt had already been in place for thirty years, all set, ready to go. I was very pleased with how this came out.
Smith: Was that hill always there? Or was that created?
DeWinter: It was created. It was a flat site and we constructed a concrete wall like a portion of an orange peel, and created the mound behind it and planted pine trees on that. That was all part of the design concept. And it worked out fine for him.
How is Betty’s health?
Smith: Physically, she’s doing okay.
DeWinter: She’s okay?
Smith: Yeah, she’s okay. I think she is pretty reclusive, she tells people she’s retired. But I think she’s never gotten over his loss. I think that that weighs pretty heavily.
DeWinter: Yes, I can appreciate that.
Smith: And of course Marty tells the story about them being on the bridge one day and she’d never seen the burial site. And she said something to him about, “Don’t you think I ought to see where people are going to dance on my grave?”
DeWinter: She was a dancer, wasn’t she?
Smith: She was. So she was very impressed. Well, Bill Clinton – I don’t know if you’ve heard this or not – but when Bill Clinton dropped by, he stopped by the gravesite and just looked around and said, “This is so Jerry Ford. This is perfect Jerry Ford.” Calm, peaceful, understated.
DeWinter: That was it.
Smith: Yeah. They got the place built. Do you have memories about the opening, the dedication?
DeWinter: Oh yes, that was a show, wasn’t it? Were you here?
Smith: I wasn’t here for the original, no.
DeWinter: You’ve probably seen the photograph of all of the dignitaries who attended the dedication.
DeWinter: And everybody who was anybody came to that dedication. It was incredible! I remember coming across over here and Teddy Kennedy – (thirty years younger then) –was trying to catch a ride from here over to the hotel. The Pantlind was done at the time, and so Bob Hope along with other celebrities was present at the opening. I guess that kind of reflected how he was loved by so many people.
Smith: Was it difficult for you – it’s your baby – when they felt the need for additional space?
DeWinter: The answer is yes.
Smith: But I have to tell you it’s invisible to the vast majority of people. It doesn’t do violence to the original design
DeWinter: I was disappointed that I wasn’t asked to be involved in the addition. The only thing I questioned about it was, “Does that outdoor table and chairs ever get used?”
Smith: I don’t think so.
DeWinter: I wouldn’t think so either, and would have handled it differently.
Smith: What would you have done differently?
DeWinter: It’s a logical place for an addition, but I wouldn’t have tried to compete with the main design and would have made it more subordinate to the original structure.
Smith: Still, this has got to be a source of real pride.
DeWinter: Of course, I think back thirty years ago and the two icons of my architectural practice are right here – the hotel across the river and this Museum. That thirty story hotel across the river was quite a monument to a couple of local boys.
Smith: And a risk.
DeWinter: Oh, yeah.
Smith: It had to have been a leap of faith when it was built.
DeWinter: They didn’t know they wanted to get in the hotel business. Actually, I went to them with an idea.
Smith: Actually the two are in some ways inseparable, because one senses that collectively, they are a catalyst for what’s followed.
DeWinter: No question about that. When the hotel was built, to my knowledge, there was only one restaurant outside of the hotel in downtown. It was across the street, called Churchill’s. That, together with the renovation of the Pantlind Hotel, really stemmed the tide of decay which did surround an awful lot of Midwestern cities at the time. The genesis of that was that the city decided they needed a convention hall. Dick Gillette, chairman of the board of Old Kent Bank, and Rich DeVos, president of Amway were asked to raise the funds to build a symphony hall and exhibit hall. I was talking to another architect one day and said, “Isn’t that something? The city’s going to build a symphony hall and an exhibit hall, and all we have is a tired old rundown Pantlind Hotel to support it.” So I came up with an idea of a hotel, the tower, and I shared it with Rich DeVos, who was a friend of mine, and kind of convinced him that they ought to come into the city from the little town of Ada east of here. Consequently, Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel have made an enormous impact in Grand Rapids.
Smith: And was that really the time when the city sort of rediscovered the river? One senses that the river was an afterthought before.
DeWinter: Industrial buildings occupied most of the west side of the River. Front Street ran alongside of the river in the location which is now the reflecting pool. There was a major city sewer under a street that originally was where the museum has been built. The original site for the museum was 150 feet to the south; however, that site was behind Indian Mounds and an abandoned street car bridge. Even though the cost of moving city utilities was about $150,000, it was the right thing to do; that is, centering the building on a park that was already there and out from behind the Indian Mounds and the bridge.
Smith: That raises a cultural question, because we all know the stories about the Dutch influence in this area – the Dutch thrift and all of that. That prevailing culture – what challenges did that present, and how do you deal with that?
DeWinter: My parents and grandparents are Dutch.
Smith: So you had your bona fides in terms of cost-consciousness?
DeWinter: My father and mother never went to college, or even finished high school. He was a farmer, truck farm – raised vegetables, all that sort of thing. And I didn’t want to get dirt under my fingernails and continue to work on the farm so I decided to go to college. I am kind of an accidental architect. After I graduated from high school I started to work in construction. A few months later I decided that maybe there is more to life than just doing this grunt work so I went to the local junior college and enrolled in an engineering course. During my first year I met a couple of guys who were in pre-architecture. That sounded more interesting than an engineering career. So I switched to that and then went to the University of Michigan and became an architect.
Smith: And I assume the “Dutch influence” is less today than fifty years ago?
DeWinter: Oh, very much so.
Smith: People didn’t read Sunday papers?
DeWinter: Oh, no, no. My parents were quite liberal. I could play ball and ride a bike on Sunday. My wife’s parents would not allow her to ride a bicycle or even ride in a car. The family walked to church for services two times every Sunday.
Smith: I used to say the litmus test of how Grand Rapids had changed – remember when the arena was new? – can you imagine Elton John performing in Grand Rapids? Selling out eleven thousand seats! That just wouldn’t happen. That encapsulates it.
DeWinter: I know that Rich and Jay, when they decided to get into the hotel business, were confronted with the issue of being open on Sundays. At that time, the Dutch Calvinistic tradition felt that Sunday was a day of rest and worship, and people should not be engaged in commercial activities on that day. Well, people get over it. The right fringe of thirty years ago is no longer in Grand Rapids. It’s much more of a cosmopolitan city today.
What a beautiful setting, isn’t it? Look at all those people out there.
Smith: He was so proud of this place.
DeWinter: President Ford?
Smith: President Ford. He obviously felt very good about what you had done. Do you remember the last time you saw him?
DeWinter: No, I don’t. I saw him many times during the construction and the dedication. I don’t remember the last time I saw him.
Smith: Were you surprised by the reaction when he died?
DeWinter: No. One of the things I do remember is I was across the river when those twenty-one jets came racing down the river. And the last one went right straight up. Remember that? Were you there?
DeWinter: That was incredible.
Smith: How do you think he should be remembered?
DeWinter: Well, I’d say he was a great man. I wish we had a Congress which had more of the Jerry Fords in it today. He had enormous principles – I guess because he was born in this community and grew up here. He had firm convictions, including one to pardon Nixon for the benefit of the country, not for his benefit. He knew that it would go against him personally for doing that; nevertheless, it didn’t matter. It was the right thing to do for the country. And I think that historians have subsequently stated that.
Smith: I think he had the satisfaction of knowing before he died that most people had come around to that viewpoint.
DeWinter: I visited him on one occasion in his home in Palm Springs and was very fond of him and had a nice talk with Susan about a year ago. She was in Grand Rapids giving a talk and I told her some little anecdotes that she didn’t know about her father.
Smith: Is there anything about this place in retrospect that you wish you’d done differently?
DeWinter: Oh sure. For example, like one of the things that bothers me is – not the conceptual design – but the material of the floor downstairs. It’s a fabricated, manufactured marble floor. I originally specified granite because it will never wear out. I had an inch and an eighth granite specified, but it would have cost an extra few hundred thousand dollars, so we put this in, which is thin – about a half inch thick instead of an inch and an eighth thick of granite. That always bothered me a little bit. I like the way the glass has functioned. All the exterior around the glass is stainless steel and it’s just a bright finish. It looks good today. I’m happy with it. I’m not happy with those little lights along the top and not happy with the huge eight foot high Ford Presidential Museum letters across the fascia – that offends me a little bit.
Smith: I understand. But the building, your concept has certainly been more than vindicated. The whole package – it seems natural. It seems like, “Of course,” and that’s the ultimate measure of success in some ways.
DeWinter: When Amway built the elliptical Marriott across the river – they selected a number of architects. I no longer had an architectural office at the time, but I was a consultant to it. They interviewed a lot of architects, including Venoly. He looked at Grand Rapids and said he thought that the Ford Museum was one of the most outstanding pieces of architecture in town. I thought that was kind of a nice complement.
Smith: That’s a very nice complement, and it’s the perfect note on which to end. Thank you.