UNIVERSITY PARK -- Former President George W. Bush watched as a crane lifted a 20-foot steel beam -- the last piece of the frame for his presidential center -- and placed it on the highest point of the building.
He grinned and applauded, along with more than 500 supporters and construction workers, who attended a traditional topping-out ceremony at the center Monday morning.
"It's awe-inspiring. It exceeds expectations," Bush said, adding that he toured the construction site for the first time Sunday. "It is going to be a fabulous addition to the SMU campus and to Dallas.
"I am incredibly excited about the facility itself."
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It was less than a year ago that Bush, family and friends gathered for the ground-breaking at this site on the eastern edge of the Southern Methodist University campus in University Park. The nearly $250 million presidential center, which will include a museum, presidential archives and a public policy institute, is scheduled to open in 2013.
But on Monday, the concrete structure of the center covered the area that was a field of grass and dirt just last November.
Bush, his wife, Laura, friends and those who have been working on the center "during the hottest summer on record" watched the crane place the beam bearing the U.S. and Texas flags on the top of what will be Freedom Hall, a space topped with a lantern-shaped roof that will glow at night. Nearby, a potted fir tree rested on other steel beams, signifying both the topping-out milestone and the fact that no deaths have occurred during construction.
As workers labored to fit the beam into the proper place, Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation, noted that it was "a tight fit."
But he quickly declared that "the shape of the building is complete."
Bush's library will be the nation's 13th presidential library administered by the National Archives and the third in Texas. The other two in Texas are George H.W. Bush's at Texas A&M University in College Station and Lyndon B. Johnson's at the University of Texas at Austin.
"This is where we will pour our hearts and souls, to make sure it's a center of excellence," Bush said.
Construction is nearly half-finished on the three-story complex that will cover 226,565 square feet on 23 acres.
It is designed by New York architect Robert A.M. Stern and landscaped by Michael Van Valkenburgh. The general contractor is Manhattan Construction Co., the same firm that worked on the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station and Rangers Ballpark and Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. The director of design and construction is Peter Arendt, who also performed that job for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
The complex will feature a life-size Oval Office that opens to a Texas Rose Garden. It will have a Freedom Plaza, a Freedom Hall, exhibits, a restaurant, classrooms, research rooms, offices, seminar rooms, an auditorium and a presidential suite.
Most building materials will come from within 500 miles of Dallas. Red bricks and limestone from the Permian Basin will blend in with SMU's buildings; interior materials such as pecan wood paneling will pay homage to Texas. Bluebonnets and other wildflowers will be part of the landscaping that will also include a wildflower meadow, wet prairie and flood-plain forest.
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610