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A life preserved

As showcase and centerpiece of the late senator’s legacy, Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston will feature a replica of his office

By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / January 31, 2010

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His mahogany desk on the Senate floor will remain there, his name inscribed in a drawer below his brother’s. His papers, spanning almost five decades of lawmaking, will go to the John F. Kennedy Library. And the treasured mementos from his office walls - family letters; his brother’s dog tags; Cape Cod seascapes he painted - will hang again, in a replica of the office on Boston’s Columbia Point, at the heart of the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute.

As a new Massachusetts senator, Republican Scott Brown, prepares to take office, closing the door firmly on the Kennedy era, the late senator has begun his passage from a living legislator, enmeshed in the real world of politics, to a figure of history, remembered in books and photographs.

The Kennedy home in Hyannis Port is expected to stay private, leaving as the centerpiece of his legacy the new educational center to bear his name in Boston. The institute, to be built beside his brother’s presidential library at the edge of Dorchester Bay, will include a model of the Senate where students will stage debates. It will also provide a new home for artifacts the senator kept close at hand in Washington, like a sculpted head of JFK that sat on his fireplace mantel and a typed note from Winston Churchill to his father, keepsakes that were packed up and placed in storage after his death last summer.

“It’s important to have a place to tell his story, and beyond him, to look to the future,’’ said Senator Paul Kirk, Kennedy’s close friend, who was temporarily appointed to his seat after his death. “You look to the past for study and scholarship, but the Kennedy spirit always looks to the future . . . The hope is that generations that come later, who don’t have a personal recollection [of him], can be inspired by the story, the compassion for the fellow man.’’

After Kennedy’s death, the Senate voted to rename a historic meeting space, the Russell Caucus Room, for Kennedy and his two brothers. The Boston School Committee rechristened a pilot school, the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, on the Northeastern University campus, and on Cape Cod, the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum installed a new permanent exhibit, “Edward M. Kennedy: Friend, Neighbor, Senator.’’

Fervent speculation has centered around the fate of his beloved home in Hyannis Port, the storied waterfront property that belonged to his parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Addressing reports that it could be converted to some public use, such as a museum or conference center, a source close to the Kennedy family said earlier this month that Vicki Kennedy, the senator’s widow, will keep the property as a residence “as far as the eye can see,’’ and that a public museum is not a possibility, because of the respect the senator had for the quiet, residential neighborhood.

Kennedy also recognized the historic significance of the property, the source said, and “an educational framework’’ will be part of its long-term management, opening the door to some limited use by scholars or historians down the road. In addition to the 21-room main house where the senator spent his last months, valued at almost $10 million, the so-called Kennedy “compound’’ includes a smaller house once owned by Robert Kennedy, where his widow, Ethel, now lives, and another, 12-room house, recently purchased by Ted Kennedy Jr., that was the vacation home of President John F. Kennedy.

Family members, including the senator’s sons, Ted and Patrick, did not respond to requests for interviews.

To Rebecca Pierce-Merrick, cofounder and curator of the Kennedy museum in Hyannis - an institution created, in part, to give Kennedy-seekers a destination outside the dense Hyannis Port neighborhood - the continued presence of the family there would provide a pleasing continuity.

“Senator Kennedy considered Hyannis Port his home, not his summer home, and that made all the difference,’’ she said. “He was very much a part of the local landscape . . . Personally, I would hope the Kennedy family would still use it and enjoy it.’’

Other proposals to honor the senator on the Cape, by renaming a street or even one of the bridges over the Cape Cod Canal, have been set aside, said local officials, because the Kennedy family asked that such support be channeled toward the new institute instead.

Fund-raisers for the project are closing in on their $120 million goal; hundreds of unsolicited donations of $10 and $20 have been made through its website, said Jack Connors, the Boston businessman who is leading the campaign. More than two dozen donations of $1 million or more have also been collected, from donors including biotechnology firms, unions, and hospitals.

The 50,000-square-foot structure, to be designed by architect Rafael Viñoly, will be part of the University of Massachusetts Boston. It is expected to share traffic with the larger JFK library next door, where nearly 185,000 people visited in 2009, many of them after Kennedy’s death.

Kennedy himself was involved in the institute’s early planning, and made it clear its scope should extend beyond his own story, to the history and influence of the Senate. It will have classrooms and exhibits about famous Senate debates and legislators, possibly including their papers. It may host training sessions for new senators, and annual meetings to explore new ideas in health care and other areas Kennedy cared about.

“The United States Senate is one of our forefathers’ most brilliant democratic inventions,’’ Kennedy said in a statement to the Globe in 2008. “To preserve our vibrant democracy for future generations, I believe it is critical to have a place where citizens can go to learn first-hand about the Senate’s important role in our system of government.’’

Leaders hope to kick off construction this year, said Peter Meade, the institute’s president.

“There’s a charge to all of us to celebrate what he did, and use it to teach young people about democracy,’’ he said.

In the Boston recreation of Kennedy’s Senate office, visitors will be able to see his desk and the two phones that sat at his right hand, plaques removed from the side of the decommissioned aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy that hung on the wall, and the letter his brother Jack wrote home from Choate when his mother was pregnant with Teddy, with its scrawled P.S. request, “Can I be godfather to the baby’’?

Other pieces of Kennedy’s life in the Senate will stay in Washington. His desk on the Senate floor will become the seat of another legislator, possibly his Republican successor. Because of its connection to his brother John, who also voted there when he was a senator, Kennedy spent much of his career at the wooden, lift-top desk in the back row of the chamber, though senators typically move toward the front and center as they gain seniority, Senate historian Betty Koed said.

His coveted “hideaway’’ office on the third floor of the Capitol, with its forest-green walls, 15-foot vaulted ceilings and view of the Washington Monument, will be assigned to another senator based on seniority, said the historian. Under the rules of the Senate, Kennedy’s main office was cleared out and closed within two months of his death. Most of his staff continued on, working for Kirk, who will serve until Scott Brown is sworn in.

Kirk said his brief tenure in the Senate has afforded him a final phase of closeness to his friend. When he leaves the post, he said, he will feel Kennedy’s absence more keenly. “It’s another sort of separation, from him and his work,’’ said Kirk.

At UMass Boston, where Kennedy was “like a rock star’’ when he came to campus, Chancellor J. Keith Motley said the planning for his institute has given faculty and students a new feeling of proximity to the senator, and another chance to engage with him and his work. “Folks just enjoy this story,’’ Motley said. “They’re interested in his life, and they all want to help.’’

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