Grey Room

I.M. Pei’s JFK Library, in Poetry, Prose, and Meeting Minutes

Edward Eigen

Aerial view of an architectural model of a proposed design of the John F. Kennedy Library by architect I.M. Pei, 1973. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.


The moderate accomplishment of I.M. Pei’s design for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is by no means diminished by the suggestion that the most interesting thing about it, to borrow the words of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, is that “this [building] campaign came to an end.” On October 20, 1979, the Massachusetts senator had shared the ceremonial stage with Carter when he presided over the dedication of theKennedy Library. “Like a great cathedral,” Carter said, “this building was along time coming. But it more than justifies the wait.” Planning for the library had begun eighteen years earlier, depending on how, or rather when, you set the clock running. The announcement of the choice of Pei as architect, on December 13, 1964, after a widely publicized, semitransparent selection process guided by Jacqueline Kennedy, was but one moment of imperfectly sustained impetus during the “long campaign.”

The purpose in what follows is not merely to mark more or less significant dates and times of day but to take up more generally the voyage and the wait, as well as the attendant question of when and how these elements of (time’s) passage become, like ostensibly finished designs, justifiable objects of study. To be clear from the outset, this article is about achieving a “sense of an ending,” to borrow the title of literary critic Frank Kermode’s enduringly revelatory book on the varieties of time—chronos (clock time) and kairos (the ripeness of things)—and the necessary fiction of closure in poetry and prose, if not also in the lives we endeavor to live.