At the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park, one building from the past and another from the present anchor a campus designed with an eye toward the future.

WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick | PHOTOGRAPHED BY Ara Howrani

Sitting amidst the volumes in the reading room at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Arkansas, James “Skip” Rutherford and Debbie Shock take turns passing the credit back and forth for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) plaque hanging on the front of this building and the one inside the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum not 100 feet away.

“One day during the early parts of construction, Debbie came to me and said, ‘Are you familiar with this LEED program?’” recalls Rutherford, the dean of the Clinton School, a two-year graduate program affiliated with the University of Arkansas. “I said, ‘No, what is it?’ She was the one that pushed this.”


Shock, the director of operations and facilities for the Clinton Foundation, notes that Rutherford, as the foundation’s original president, oversaw the development of the campus. She says that the green buildings wouldn’t have come to fruition without his leadership.


But both Rutherford and Shock agree that the final word came from the man whose name is on the front of both buildings—the forty-second president of the United States. “He immediately got the concept,” Shock says of Clinton’s quickness to embrace green development.


Cover: Beacon playground. Shiva Prakash at the Old Colony Housing project in South Boston. Photo: Eric Roth

“I just said, ‘Look, this is the right thing to do, short term and long term,” recalls Rutherford. That, apparently, was all Clinton needed to hear.


The official function of presidential libraries is to preserve the records of the office, but the libraries also serve to literally cement the legacies of the presidents. The museum exhibits, of course, tend to present the leaders in a positive light (Herbert Hoover’s role in the Great Depression, for example, is summed up at his library in Iowa with the arguably generous exhibit title “From Hero to Scapegoat”). But the buildings themselves also shape the image each visitor will walk away with. Most presidents will never join Washington and Lincoln on the National Mall, and so it is these museums—scattered from the Nixon and Reagan libraries in California to the Kennedy Library in Boston—that act as the lasting monuments of the modern presidency.


The planning for these libraries takes years, and every decision is carefully weighed, from where to locate them (Clinton considered placing his library near his alma maters of Georgetown or Yale but ultimately picked Little Rock, hoping to spur economic development in his home state) to their design (the long and narrow Clinton Library, situated along the bank of the Arkansas River, is meant to evoke Clinton’s promise to build a “bridge to the 21st Century”).


As Clinton worked with Rutherford and Shock to plan his library, this process for the first time included serious conversations about energy efficiency. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standards weren’t unveiled until 2000, when Clinton was winding down his time in office and only a year before ground broke on the library. When the building opened in 2004, it was one of the first LEED buildings in Arkansas—and certainly the first presidential library in the country to achieve the designation.

Former President Clinton chose to place his library and museum in a blighted part of downtown Little Rock in hopes of revitalizing the city.

“When we were talking about LEED, most people didn’t know what we were talking about,” Rutherford remembers.


“For most of our contractors,” adds Shock, “it was the first time they’d ever heard of it.”


Rutherford acknowledges that the presidential library and museum is, by definition, at least partly about Clinton’s legacy. But he says it was the future—not the past—that guided the former president’s design decisions. “There are legacy benefits [to building green], though we didn’t do it for legacy,” Rutherford says. “We did it because it was the right thing to do. Legacy never came up when we were scrounging for points.”


“He made the effort to place it in a blighted area in downtown Little Rock to revitalize the city,” Rutherford adds. “So it wasn’t just about his legacy, it was about Little Rock’s future. That’s more important to him, in terms of people having jobs, and museums, and arts centers, and restaurants, and quality of life. The school and the student projects are important to him. I think presidential libraries get a bum rap when people say they’re all about legacy. There may be some that are. I can’t say. But I can say, at this one, the legacy component is probably the least important thing to him.”


When Rutherford first visited what is now the Clinton Presidential Center and Park in the late 1990s, the 30-acre site was a wasteland. Warehouse buildings sat dilapidated and abandoned, and snakes slithered through the tall grass. Packs of dogs, set loose by owners who didn’t want them, roved the riverbanks, baring their teeth at anyone who came too close.


“It was a mess,” recalls Rutherford. “There was trash. The train station [that now houses the Clinton School and Clinton Foundation offices] was under weeds. My crazy first thought was that I needed to go buy some trash bags. It was overwhelming.”


“Nobody came over to this side of the freeway,” says Shock.


“Oh, they did,” Rutherford counters. “They’d just dump stuff.”


On a sunny day in March, with the land just starting to come alive after a harsh (by Arkansas standards) winter, it’s difficult to picture the site as it once was. The wild dogs are long gone, replaced by fishermen casting lines in the river, kids riding their bike along the trails, and even families sliding down the campus’s constructed hills on sheets of cardboard.


Rutherford greets each person he sees with a “Hello!” so enthusiastic that it seems like he must personally know everybody in Little Rock. In his early 60s, he has graying hair and deep lines around his eyes, but his energy is youthful, and he has a reputation in Arkansas for a kind of quiet competence. He first met Clinton in 1974, when the future president was still a law professor, and has been among the legendary “FOBs” (Friends of Bill) ever since, alternating between stints as a public relations executive and various Clinton-related posts, including a spot as an advisor on the 1992 presidential campaign.


Shock came into the Clinton fold later, leaving a career in Denver to work for the foundation, but she speaks about the former president with a fondness and familiarity that suggests bona fide membership in the ever-growing club of FOBs.


Strolling along the boardwalk over the constructed wetlands on the campus (past the “Biggest Bat Box in Arkansas,” according to a sign), Rutherford and Shock join a few families in pointing out the turtles swimming through the murky green water. “There’ll be lots of babies in a couple of months,” Shock remarks.


Just outside the loop of the boardwalk, an empty flask of Smirnoff slowly floats toward the litter trap that catches debris flowing into the wetlands. “Everywhere you go on this site, there is an environmental sensibility,” Rutherford says, “and environmental education.”


The park, wetlands, and trails provide a connection to the environment, but they wouldn’t exist without the two buildings that anchor the campus: Choctaw Station, the red brick 1899 structure that houses the graduate school and foundation offices; and the modern glass-and-steel Clinton Library and Museum next door.

The 1899 Choctaw Train Station has been repurposed to house the graduate school and foundation offices.

Although the two buildings opened on the same day in 2004, only the library initially went for LEED certification, in part due to the financial challenges of sustainably retrofitting a century-old train station. The library achieved LEED Silver certification initially, but it was recertified LEED Platinum in 2007—an effort aided by the addition of a green roof that provides insulation and captures rainwater. The building also has more than 300 solar panels and bamboo flooring, and it was built with responsibly sourced materials. It also got a LEED point for the trolley that stops at the campus. In 2014 the building was recertified LEED Platinum.


On the first floor of the library, visitors can view the presidential limousine (and also buy miniature models of it, although a larger gift shop is located a five-minute walk into the downtown, part of the effort to revitalize the area). On the second floor, after watching a short video starring Clinton, visitors can sit in a recreation of the Cabinet Room and then wander among “alcove exhibits” on topics like the economy and foreign affairs. On the third floor, a roped-off replica of the Oval Office awaits, along with artifacts from state dinners, gifts given to the president (including Michael Jordan’s present of … a statue of Michael Jordan), and gallery space for special exhibitions like one on presidential pets.


Above all this sits Clinton’s executive suite, an apartment where the former president stays when he visits Little Rock—about once a month, Rutherford says. Partly for security reasons, and partly to protect Clinton’s privacy, Rutherford won’t allow the interior of the suite to be photographed, or even described in the media. But the apartment opens out onto the building’s green roof, and students sometimes see Clinton step outside for fresh air.


On one side of the roof, a practice putting green is surrounded by blueberries and yellow roses, the favorite flower of Clinton’s mother. On the other, a boardwalk winds through a garden of regional plants, as well as wind chimes and a solar-powered pipe organ. The roof is only four stories up, but in Little Rock, that’s high enough to provide a fairly spectacular view—of the grounds and river below, and of the small-city skyline just across the interstate.


Choctaw Station may be more than a century older than the library, but its LEED plaque is a few years newer. Spurred by a federal stimulus grant, the school and the foundation transformed the historic building into a LEED Gold facility, installing features like low-flow toilets and waterless urinals, motion sensors for lights, and a highly efficient heating and cooling system. They also ramped up recycling at the building and implemented a green cleaning program. The changes have helped reduce energy costs at the building by around 50 percent, Rutherford says.


The building—which was once a stop on the Rock Island Railroad, but later housed a restaurant, church, and nightclub at various times—is the only remnant of the campus’s bad old days as a dumping ground (aside from a former railroad bridge crossing the river that opened to the public as a pedestrian bridge in 2011). Original details like exposed wooden beams and a tin ceiling have been preserved, but the former “Colored” and “VIP” waiting rooms have been transformed into nearly identical teaching spaces. The open-air porch at the back of the building, where passengers once boarded their trains, has been enclosed in glass to create day-lit office space.


The combination of the newer LEED Platinum library and the historic LEED Gold former train station, together with the adjacent LEED Platinum headquarters of the charity Heifer International, has turned the once-desolate area into a cluster of sustainable development, where architects come to tour the buildings and take away ideas to implement on their own projects. In particular, Rutherford says, the greening of Choctaw Station shows that it’s possible for even older buildings with development restrictions to be made energy efficient.


“We have a lot of people come through the building and say, ‘How did you do it?’” Rutherford says. “And I say, ‘When you have requirements based on historic preservation, and you have needs based on the environment, and you sit down and talk, you’d be surprised about what you can agree on.’”


“We’ve turned this place into an environmental showcase,” he adds. “It is a combination of the old and the new, and it shows that historic preservation, higher education, economic development, and concern for the environment can all work together.”


A tad ironically, it is the newer library that houses the memories of Clinton’s past, while the older Choctaw provides space to the students and foundation staff who will carry the former president’s legacy on into the future. The Clinton Foundation does extensive work combating climate change, and the Clinton School attracts a number of students interested in working on environmental issues—enough of them that Rutherford uses the building’s LEED Gold rating as a “recruiting tool.”


Maddy Salzman and Austin Harrison, two first-year students at the Clinton School, are part of a group working to research and develop recommendations about energy-saving measures that also reduce asthma

We’ve turned this place into an environmental showcase. It is a combination of the old and the new, and it shows that historic preservation, higher education, economic development, and concern for the environment can all work together.

—Skip Rutherford


Austin Harrison and Maddy Salzman, two first-year students at the Clinton School, are researching and developing recommendations about energy-saving measures that also reduce asthma triggers.

triggers. Harrison says that, while Salzman is more focused on the environmental benefits of green building, he’s more interested in cost savings, and the two of them “hold each other accountable.”


The Clinton Library, which sits next to the historical Choctaw Station, is a modern LEED-certified structure of glass and steel. 

These multiple appeals of energy efficiency, Salzman says, make the issue particularly exciting to work on. “It’s really easy for people to get behind [energy efficiency],” she says. “It produces a lot of jobs. It usually saves people money. And it’s good for the environment as well. So you can come at it from a lot of different political perspectives and see benefits.”


Rutherford agrees that these multiple benefits of sustainable building cut across partisan lines—as evidenced by the fact that Clinton’s Republican successor, George W. Bush, also pursued LEED Platinum certification at his library and museum in Dallas. “When you see presidents like Clinton and Bush [building green] because they want to, then it takes the politics out of it,” Rutherford says. “People start recognizing that this is good for business, this is good for the environment, and it’s good for the future of the country. What the LEED program has done is moved [sustainability] from the political spectrum to the architectural and construction spectrum, where people do it not because they have to do it, but because they want to do it.”


So, will all future presidential libraries follow the Clinton model and make sustainability a priority? Rutherford hopes so. “That,” he says, “would be a great legacy.”