Obama Foundation previews presidential center construction site in Chicago

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Michael Strautmanis, vice president of the Obama Presidential Center, at the job site in Chicago on October 31, 2023. | Shia Kapos/POLITICO

CHICAGO — Barack Obama toured the site of his Obama Presidential Center near his home in Chicago’s Hyde Park on Wednesday, according to the former president’s foundation, which said he usually makes a stop to the site part of his visits to the city.

The development, a four-story, 235-foot tower and associated smaller buildings that will serve as Obama’s presidential museum, is finally taking shape after eight years of planning, community haggling and a few lawsuits. The center is scheduled to open at the end of 2025.

POLITICO exclusively toured the construction site with Michael Strautmanis, the executive vice president for External Affairs for the Obama Foundation, on Tuesday ahead of Obama’s visit.

“It’s going to show success, failures, opposition and triumph,” Strautmanis said, calling the center a “civic industry project” that dovetails with the mission of Obama’s annual Democracy Forum. “Ultimately, it will show how important our democratic system is and what citizens can do.” Strautmanis highlighted the diversity of contractors working on the project.

The main building will feature artifacts, including several of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s dresses, a replica of the Oval Office and pictures and notable documents from Obama’s eight years in office. Unlike other presidential centers, it won’t include an archival library, which instead will be accessible digitally through the National Archives.

The museum will also have a modest auditorium with tiered seating. Larger gatherings will be held in a separate building, the yet-to-be-built Programs and Athletic Center, Strautmanis said.

Visitors will be able to walk through the campus’ courtyard, gardens and use the sledding hill without having to pay any kind of fee. Strautmanis says the ethos of the campus fits with the Obamas’ goal of making it accessible to the community.

“The overall work at the foundation is that this is the space of civic infrastructure,” said Strautmanis, describing it as a space that shows how people can “change the world and solve problems.”

He acknowledged tensions surrounding the campus’ impact on its South Side neighborhood as residents worry the gleaming new complex will displace lower-income residents.

Obama toured the site while he was in Chicago this week for the Obama Foundation’s Democracy Forum, a symposium that will take on artificial intelligence and political discourse this year.

The former president also plans to headline an alumni party on Friday evening with more than 2,500 members of his administration and political teams to mark the 15th anniversary of his historic 2008 election.

The celebration will include remarks by Michelle Obama, Jen Psaki and Kal Penn in addition to a performance by Jon Batiste and a live taping of Crooked Media’s Pod Save America with the former president.

While touring the Obama Center site, Roark Frankel, director of planning and construction for the Obama center, directed Strautmanis and POLITICO up three flights of metal stairs where the Eleanor Roosevelt Fruit and Vegetable Garden will be built, overlooking a picturesque lagoon to the east and Lake Michigan beyond.

“Just amazing,” said Strautmanis, a former Obama White House aide who hadn’t seen the view before. He said his mission is for the center to fit the Obamas’ brand.

“The Obamas are special,” he said. “They’re important. They’re iconic. But at the end of the day, they’re two people who decided that they want to participate in creating civic change, and anybody can do that.”

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