Friday, August 22, 2008

Museum of the Confederacy

“Built in 1852 to the design of nationally renowned architect James Renwick (Designer of the Smithsonian), the City of Fredericksburg Circuit Courthouse is among the architectural treasures in the Fredericksburg Historic District and one of the most prominent buildings on Princess Anne Street. It is the only Gothic Revival courthouse in Virginia.”

As part of the Court Facility Study undertaken on behalf of the City by Mosley Architects in 2007 a group of citizens met at the Circuit Court to discuss the future of the courthouse after the new court facility is built. There was, “strong agreement that the building should continue to be part of the city’s public life, whether as a courthouse or with a new use.” It was also agreed that, ”the courthouse should be respected, preserved, and used so that it continues to enhance and enrich downtown Fredericksburg, the city at large, and the surrounding region.”

The report also went on to cover the condition of the building and made some recommendations for changes to meet the stated goal of continued public use of the facility. These involve electrical upgrades, ADA compliance issues, heating & air upgrades, floor weight ratios, and of course the problem of moisture around the building’s foundation. This would require a significant public investment.

The reality is that the construction of the new court facility will increase the City’s debt service to $10 million a year. Based on current projections the revenue from Wegmans, Kalahari, and the new downtown hotel will be needed to cover the new debt. Council has been advised that a large number of planned Capital projects will have to be put on hold indefinitely due to the increase in debt and falling revenues. We don’t have the money to renovate the courthouse.

The situation with state funding is no different. Funds allocated to assist in some basic work on the courthouse were reduced this year. The word from Richmond today is revenue continues to drop and more cuts should be expected, not only for projects like the courthouse, but across the board.

We could be facing the specter of another Maury School. A public building sitting vacant for years with tax dollars being spend to just slow down the rate of deterioration waiting for funding to become available to restore it for a public use. Fortunately, there is an organization that has expressed a potential interest in renovation of the courthouse. This will meet our goal of continued public use and will draw more visitors downtown, thereby helping to generate more tourism revenue for the City. That organization is The Museum of the Confederacy.

Fredericksburg sits in the center of the most fought over piece of ground in the United States. Four major Civil War battles were fought in and around the city, which attract thousands of visitors here every year. The addition of the Museum of the Confederacy would be a natural fit and enhance visitor’s experience of the Civil War. We are looking at the possibility of a restored courthouse with a public use component that would also help bolster heritage tourism to the area that translates to longer stays, and more spending by tourists.

In preliminary discussions with the museum it has been made clear that the City does not have funds to invest in the renovation of the courthouse. What we can do is make the building available to the museum under some form of lease agreement on the understanding that they would have to bear the cost of the renovations. It is also understood that space would be made available to the public and there have even been discussions about maintaining a court use to continue the record as the longest continuously operated courthouse in Virginia.

While the Museum of the Confederacy looks to be a natural fit for Fredericksburg there are issues that must be addressed before we move forward. There is the issue of whether the museum can financially handle the renovations and upkeep of the courthouse. Will the timeline for occupancy of the old courthouse allow the museum to open on their schedule? What type of renovation would have to be made and how much would they, if at all, compromise the historical integrity of the building? And then there is the issue of the topic itself.

The story of the Confederate States of America still engenders great passion today. There are those who admire the romanticized view of the, “Lost Cause;” while others see slavery and racism. Like any other creation of man the Confederacy cannot be categorized by absolutes.

History is intermingled stories of man’s achievements and innovation, as well as his failures and missed opportunities. Of great deeds and compassion as well as great evil and inhumanity. We have learned, and continue to learn, from these events, both good and bad, and from these lessons we try to build a society that improves on the one left by the previous generation. If we oversimplify history, edit it, or ignore it, we will begin to make the same mistakes, and miss the lessons, of those who came before us.

We must be mindful of sensitivities and ensure than the story of the Confederacy is placed in its proper context and all aspects addressed—from military success on the battlefield as well as the institution of slavery. All must be open for discussion and debate.

Since beginning their search in this area the Museum of the Confederacy has been sensitive to this issue and have met with community groups to explain their goals for the museum and answer questions on how the Confederacy will be presented.
I would also invite you to visit the museum’s website to learn more about the museum. If you have questions or concerns they would be happy to address them.

This project should engender community discussion and no doubt some debate. From such discussions comes understanding and consensus. All I would ask is that you do not just dismiss the proposal without giving the museum and its supporters the opportunity to address your concerns and answer any questions you may have.


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Bryan said...


Are there more detailed plans coming from the museum? These discussions have only been vaguely detailed in the FLS and here on your blog. Thanks for bringing more info out into the open. What was the timeline for the courts move, and would the building even be available in enough time for the MOC to do renovations and still hit a 2011 timeframe?

Also, the text in the AP article seemed to indicate this was a road tour of artifacts, but what I've read here and in the FLS seem to indicate a permanent museum. Are they talking only during the sesquentinial or long after that is finished.

Bryan said...

Any chance the museum would be interested in the Downman house? They could start restoration efforts right away, without having to wait for any court moves. It even has the historic ties to the museum. There have been few public discussions of other possible uses for either the old courthouse or the Downman house.

Anonymous said...

Bryan, the MOC's website. It's filled with plenty of details.