AUSTIN—The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library reopened here last weekend after extensive renovations, offering downloadable tour apps and an interactive exhibit about the decisions the president made during the Vietnam War.
Yet some visitors will look for just one thing: the talking, gesturing animatronic likeness of the former president.
"We do a $10 million renovation and all anyone cares about is the LBJ," jokes library spokeswoman Anne Wheeler, adding "It's certainly one of the more memorable exhibits."
For nearly 15 years, an animatronic avatar of the former president held court at the museum, moving and gesticulating to a recording of Johnson's folksy yarns. The eerily lifelike and life-size figure wore a cowboy hat, Western boots and a checked shirt, cordially leaning over a ranch fence, a length of coiled rope in hand.
But when the museum, which attracts an estimated 100,000 visitors annually, began planning its overhaul several years ago, museum curators decided the orchestrator of the Great Society and the Master of the Senate needed a makeover, too.
Gone are the countrified clothes and the ranch fence. Instead, the 36th president now wears a charcoal suit and tie, with no hat, and stands before a podium.
Some in Austin have decried the change of a cherished local icon. "I liked him better at the ranch fence," wrote one columnist in the Austin American-Statesman, who devoted two articles to the matter.
The figure is a mainstay of articles and travel guides about Austin and helped the museum make Travel and Leisure's list of wackiest presidential libraries—the LBJ "will either dazzle you or give you nightmares," the magazine wrote in 2009.
Red Wassenich, who claims to have coined the local rallying cry "Keep Austin Weird," and maintains a website celebrating Austin oddities, says he is nervous about the folksy animatron "being transformed into any sort of urbane raconteur."
But curators say they are just being faithful to history.
"We decided to put him in more of the context of the stories," says Ms. Wheeler. "You hear people laughing after he tells the jokes," she adds, noting that the president's barnyard humor, at least on these occasions, was deployed at official dinners and fundraisers.
The animatron's more dignified mise en scène may also reflect Johnson's increasingly elevated status in the presidential pantheon, thanks in part to Robert Caro's multivolume biographies and distance from the divisive issues surrounding the Vietnam War.
The public is "frankly catching up to the supreme importance of LBJ in forging modern American society," says library director Mark Updegrove.
The animatron is an apt vehicle for Johnson, a natural tale-spinner, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who wrote two books about Johnson's taped recordings.
"He had a Texas love of storytelling. When people asked a question, it was never yes or no," says Mr. Beschloss. "My guess is that an animatronic Nixon would not have the same effect."
Though some call it creepy or corny, the animatron makes history more accessible. "These libraries are supposed to bring presidents to life, right?" says history writer Sarah Vowell, who has written about her visits to presidential animatrons.
Like any modern meta-celebrity, the animatronic LBJ also has its own Twitter feed, where it had offered wry, occasionally plaintive observations from inside the library's remodeling: "My fence was moved! Where am I supposed to stand and crack jokes? Thank goodness for Twitter! #theworldismyoyster."
That feed, sent out by a library staffer, has been largely silent during the several months the LBJ figure spent at Sally Corp., a Jacksonville, Fla., maker of animatronics and theme-park attractions. Engineers there tuned up LBJ's pneumatic system of valves, compressors and electronic sensors, and developed some new arm and shoulder gestures befitting his new stance behind the podium.
Remaking the president took months of work, from the meticulous cleaning of the hand-painted features on the silicone-blend face to the individually-inserted hairs on LBJ's hairline, brows and visage, to give him a more formal hairdo to match his period suit.
The figure wasn't the library's idea in the first place. Originally commissioned by Dallas-based retailer Neiman Marcus, the presidential replica was displayed in 1997 as part of an in-store celebration of all things Texas and was donated to the library later that year, where it became a beloved oddity.
The original Neiman Marcus figure, which cost $58,750, was seated in a pickup truck, one gesticulating arm hanging out the window, Sally Corp. officials say.
Sally's chairman and CEO John Wood says he was nervous about LBJ's original creation—the company had created other presidential figures, but none from the modern era. Lady Bird Johnson herself approved the completed product, although she noted that her husband usually drove a car instead of a pickup, Mr. Wood recalls.
The animatronic LBJ was programmed to recount five jocular tales in a loop, the soundtrack taken from archived recordings of the real Johnson.
One story, for example, was about a man whose doctor advised his hearing woes would improve if he quit drinking. During a follow-up visit a few months later, the hearing problems still persisted. The doctor asked if the man had taken his advice. "Well he said, 'Well doctor I got home and I considered it and I just decided that I liked what I drank so much better than what I heard,' " Johnson said.
Because of a glitch, the refurbished figure only gives a short welcome speech while the library still works on making it fully operational.
Those who still prefer the ranch-hand LBJ can take solace in the fact that the figure survives at all.
According to Mr. Updegrove, the library director, some museum curators briefly considered scrapping the exhibit entirely.
"There were two camps," Mr. Updegrove recalls, "and I was firmly in one, with an emphasis on camp."
After some discussion, the staff opted to preserve it.
"My epitaph may well say 'the man who saved the LBJ animatron' and I am just fine with that," he says. "It is sacrosanct."
Write to Rachel Emma Silverman at email@example.comPrinted in The Wall Street Journal, page 31
A version of this article appeared December 27, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: At Presidential Library, LBJ Gets a Makeover.