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From a jungle of metal beams, a sneak peek of the Gerald R. Ford Museum's $13 million renovation

Visitors tour the new site under construction.

When the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum reopens this June, following a nine-month renovation process that includes the addition of a learning center for students, it will seem like a whole new place.
Maneuvering around heaps of metal beams piled near the expansive windows overlooking the Grand River, Joseph Calvaruso takes a look around the cavernous space that is now the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and, adjusting his hard hat, paints a picture of what the institution will look like when it debuts its renovated self come this June.

“This is a whole new museum,” Calvaruso, the executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, says last Wednesday, when members of the foundation, as well as the museum’s construction and architectural team, gave the media a sneak peek of what the museum will look like once it opens after a nine-month, $13 million renovation process. “It’s basically new everything.”

Joseph Calvaruso

More than $15 million in private funds is being funneled into the project — about $4 million more than it took to build the museum that first opened in 1981. The space is set to reopen on June 7, when the public will get a chance to explore the new $8 million DeVos Learning Center, which will house three classrooms, a small conference room and more in the space that spans nearly 8,000 square feet of space in which thousands of students will interactively learn about history through SMART Boards, iPads and other technology. Then, of course, there is the redesigned museum, which is coming in at a price tag of $5 million and will include new exhibits focusing on the life of President Ford, from his birth through his death in 2006 — as well as exhibits dedicated to former First Lady Betty Ford and the legacy the 38th President and his wife have left behind. Additionally, about $2 million is being used for the digitization of papers at the museum's library.

“We’ll bring the story of President Ford alive; we’ll share his story of public service and integrity,” Calvaruso says.

“Steve Ford, President Ford’s son, asks if people really know who his dad was when they leave the museum — this will let them do that, will let them really know him,” he continues.

While Ford was born Leslie Lynch King in Omaha, Nebraska in 1913, it was Grand Rapids that he called home. Ford moved to the city in 1914 with his mother, Dorothy Gardner King, after his mother left her abusive husband about two weeks after Ford was born. It was here that Ford grew up with his mother, his step-father, Gerald R. Ford Sr., and three half-siblings. After his mother married the senior Ford in 1917, Leslie King was renamed Gerald R. Ford, Jr., after the man Ford loved, admired and considered to be his father.

The former President spent much of his childhood, from the age of eight to 17, at 649 Union SE, a three-story abode on the border of South Hill and Heritage Hill, not far from Baxter. At the site that’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Ford recalled in his autobiography that he and his friends would use the garage behind the house for a social club.

“We learned to play penny-ante poker … it was a great hideaway because my parents wouldn’t climb the ladder to the second floor — or so I thought,” Ford wrote.

Attending school at Madison Elementary and South High School, Ford was well known for his athleticism and starred on his high school’s football team. He went on to attend the University of Michigan, where he also played football, and Yale Law School before enlisting in the Navy during World War II. Following the war, the Grand Rapids resident ran for Congress (during his campaign, he married Betty Bloomer Warren at Grace Episcopal Church and honeymooned, very briefly, in Ann Arbor). His first bid was a successful one, and he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949 through 1973, when then-President Richard Nixon nominated him to be Vice President, following Spiro Agnew’s resignation. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Ford became President in 1974 and famously said during his inauguration speech: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

After running for reelection in 1976, he was defeated by Jimmy Carter, but went on to remain a vocal advocate of moderate Conservatism — he was, for example, a critic of the Iraq War in 2004 and was a proponent of gay rights.

The exhibits will explore all of this, and much more, through 400 items (these items will often be changing, as the museum owns about 19,000 items it can choose from) displayed in 60 cases sweeping across 13,000 square feet of museum space, as well as with a new five-minute video that visitors will watch as they enter the exhibit space on the second floor. The exhibits will flow through six galleries: Foundations of a Civic Life, 1913-1947; Serving the People, 1947-1973; Integrity at the Helm, 1974-1977, Citizenship by Example, 1977-2006; Funeral and Memorial Tributes; and Character Attributes/Legacy Experience.

The Oval Office exhibit will remain in the museum, as will space for traveling exhibitions. In the past, temporary exhibits have focused on slavery, U.S. relations with China, jazz, and more. There will also be a space dedicated to former First Lady Betty Ford.

“We are excited to have the public see the redesigned museum and new exhibits,” Museum Director Elaine Didier says. “The core exhibits will now tell the complete life story of President and Mrs. Ford and, with the addition of the DeVos Learning Center, we have added a much-needed space dedicated to student education.”

Didier too stresses the new experience visitors will have as they tour the facility.

“Many of the exhibits will be brought to life through video, scene re-creations, digital interaction, historical artifacts, and text-based storylines.”

The total project has created 150 jobs, and the museum partnered with Grand Rapids-based Pioneer Construction; Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, Inc., also of Grand Rapids; Gallagher & Associates; and Xibitz to conduct the renovation and build the new learning center. Pioneer Construction officials say they’re working with about 20 subcontractors, all of whom are local.

As part of the project, the DeVos Learning Center is being built to LEED-Silver standards, which includes design elements that enhance energy efficiency. There is a highly reflective roofing system, low-flow plumbing fixtures, landscaping areas that use native vegetation, and more.

“This project has various challenges as a result of adding onto an existing building and working with decades-old infrastructure,” says Scott Veine, of Pioneer Construction, a company that has been in Grand Rapids for 83 years. “Once complete, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and DeVos Learning Center will boast modern construction principles with the latest designs allowing future generations to learn about the legacy of President and Mrs. Ford.”

Chris Kretovic, a senior architect with Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, Inc,, which has been in Grand Rapids since 1956, says his firm has been thrilled to work on a project of historical significance.

“How often do you get to say you worked on a presidential museum?” Kretovic asks. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

To celebrate the completion of both projects, a gala will be held on the evening of June 6 at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids, and, on the morning of June 7, ceremonies will be held at the museum for the the grand opening of the learning center and the re-dedication of the museum. Members of the Ford family, several members of President Ford’s cabinet, foundation trustees, and other local, state and federal leaders are expected to attend the festivities.

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth. Connect with her via email (AKGustaf@gmail.com) and on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Photography by Bri Luginbill
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