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Museum proponents seek partnership with Smithsonian

June 19, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

A proposed Civil War museum in downtown Hagerstown, as envisioned by its proponents, would attract tens of thousands of visitors each year, feature hundreds of exhibits and "tell the traumatic story of the most trying moment in our nation's history."

Dennis E. Frye, a leader of the effort, said last week that the group is seeking a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian's 2-year-old Affiliations Program lends artifacts to new and existing museums all over the country.

Frye said the Smithsonian has an extensive collection of Civil War objects that could form the heart of a museum. He said the museum would feature every aspect of the era, including depictions of civilian life in mid-19th-century America.

"The museum will not be your typical buttons and bullets museum," he said.

In order to make the vision a reality, however, the backers must clear several hurdles.

The Antietam Creek Coalition, the nonprofit organization that is developing the proposal, must persuade elected officials from Hagerstown and Washington County to commit money to fund a study and formal proposal.

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Then the coalition, which is working with the McGorrisk Group, a for-profit Austin, Texas, firm, must submit a detailed proposal to the Smithsonian. Finally, proponents must get backing from Wall Street investors.

"What we need next is to provide a thorough study that legitimizes Hagerstown and downtown as a credible location for a world-class Civil War museum," Frye said.

Frye said the coalition's top choice for a location is the vacant city-owned Baldwin House complex at 32-46 W. Washington St.

Pointing to its deteriorating condition, some elected officials have suggested other buildings would be more suitable for a museum. But Frye said the site offers several advantages, including:

- Location. In the heart of downtown, the complex is easily accessible from Interstates 70 and 81.

- Size. The complex, which includes a five-story brick hotel, the former Routzahn's department store and the former Grand Piano warehouse, has 60,000 square feet of space.

- History. The area has some historical significance, Frye said. It is the site of the former Washington Hotel, where John Brown and his sons stayed on their way to Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Frye said he hopes to persuade the Washington County Commissioners and Hagerstown City Council to fund a detailed analysis of the site. That study, which would take 90 to 120 days, would form the basis of the group's proposal to the Smithsonian.

Elected officials were noncommittal about the proposal last week.

"It's still being discussed," said Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II.

Said Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook: "We have to take this one step at a time. We need to hear all the facts before we can commit to anything."

Tracy Goldsmith, a coordinator of the Affiliations Program, said the Smithsonian has received about 200 inquiries since it began two years ago. The program has signed affiliation agreements with 23 museums, she said.

When the Smithsonian approves proposals, it negotiates long-term artifact loans, Goldsmith said. The terms are usually for 10 years and can be renewed.

When it receives a proposal, Goldsmith said the Smithsonian scrutinizes it to make sure it meets the institution's criteria.

"We have to be assured there are mechanisms in place to care for the artifacts and that the museum has professional staff on board," she said.

Frey said any local proposal would answer those questions.

"Museums that display national treasures must meet the highest environmental standards," he said.

Frye said the study would be aimed at two audiences: local elected officials and Wall Street investors.

The study would examine whether it would be better to renovate the Baldwin complex or tear it down and build a new structure. The study also would analyze such issues as parking, traffic flow, signage and handicapped accessibility.

If the Smithsonian signed on, Frye said the group would try to raise the millions of dollars necessary for the project from the bond market.

Frye said he anticipates a museum would generate revenues from admissions fees, merchandise sales, membership and fund raising.

Frye said the museum could draw 100,000 visitors. A natural starting point would be to lure the 240,000 to 260,000 people who visit Antietam National Battlefield each year, he said.

In addition, Frye said there are several other major tourist attractions nearby, including Ford Frederick State Park in Big Pool, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa.

"Ideally, it would be wonderful if we could open the doors of the museum in 2002 as part of the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam," he said. "This represents an incredible opportunity. But we have much work before us to make the opportunity a reality."

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