3DI Studio | At Long Last, Renewal
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At Long Last, Renewal

Far from a simple historical repository, the new, now-underway Black History Museum will be a place that explores notions of slavery, rights and race.

The Leigh Street Armory is under siege, finally.

Contractors and construction workers infiltrated the 120-year-old Jackson Ward space in early September, marking the first outward signs of progress in recent memory for one of the city’s most anticipated projects: The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. What took so long?

“I don’t even remember what the original timetable was at this point,” says Stacy L. Burrs, the museum’s chief executive officer. “We have to think forward with this thing if we’re going to be successful.”

The boarded-up brick building at 122 W. Leigh St. was originally constructed for the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Infantry, the city’s first African-American regiment, before the turn of the 20th century. By the turn of the 21st, it was on the verge of collapse. In a 2003 attempt to salvage the structure, the city sunk a $700,000 federal grant, a Community Development Block Grant and capital improvement funding into the armory and its rear addition.

In the coming year, the building will undergo an $8 million renovation. The museum’s board is seeking an additional $6 million for an endowment and operational costs. If all goes according to plan, Burrs says, the museum’s doors will open at the end of 2015. The year marks the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War.

By then, Burrs and others will have spent seven years attempting to move the museum’s headquarters from its nearby 00 Clay St. location, which it has occupied since 1991, to the 24,000-square-foot armory. He cites the complexities of historical rehabilitation projects for the delays. The organization erred on the side of caution with the facility’s design and planning, he says. With construction, “you only get one chance to get it right,” Burrs adds.

Pushing paperwork through state and city offices in search of funding didn’t exactly expedite things, either, Burrs says, but the efforts paid off in the form of a $600,000 Industrial Revitalization Fund grant from the state, which the city is required to match. Corporate titans Altria and Dominion each pledged $500,000 to the project. The Cabell and Parsons foundations each donated a reported $300,000. The organization sought additional funding through historic tax credits and bank loans, Burrs says.

“In this age of immediate gratification, if it takes us five or 10 years to do something with it, that’s not that long — especially when we’re working to create something that’s going to last for generations,” says Burt Pinnock, a principal at architecture firm Baskervill, who has worked with Burrs as the project’s architect.

Burrs wants the museum to serve as a “cultural watering hole” for all visitors: a community space for discussions on slavery, civil rights, race and Richmond’s role in shaping the country’s history in regard to each. Without a physical venue for discourse, those conversations have, instead, unfolded on editorial pages and in online comments debating the future of Shockoe Bottom, once the site of the second-largest slave-trading district in the country.

“All museums and cultural arts institutions are challenged by the Internet and YouTube and the ability for people to get info about anything they want, but I think perhaps what might be lacking are institutions that intentionally try to bring people together around the notion of reconciliation,” Burrs says. “Try as you may, that might not be something that happens organically.”

For that reason, Burrs envisions a museum built on technology and user experience instead of artifacts, where “7-year-olds and their grandparents feel equally at home and stimulated,” he says. Riggs Ward, a Richmond-based design firm, will develop the museum’s exhibits.

The museum may become a tourist draw for Jackson Ward, a historically African-American community that in recent years has become one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. Burrs expects 60,000 people to visit the museum in its first year at its new location, citing its easy access to Interstate 95, proximity to downtown and general visibility in a literal fortress amid row houses.

“[The new location] makes a world of difference for the Jackson Ward community,” says Denise Lawus, deputy director of neighborhood revitalization in the city’s department of economic and community development. “This takes an unused building and turns it into something people in that community will appreciate.” That’s certainly the case for Leighton Powell, acting president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association.

“I heard about this and I started crying,” she says. “I was so overjoyed.”

Powell has seen Jackson Ward transform in the 12 years she’s lived there. Virginia Commonwealth University students have ventured across Belvidere Street, renting previously blighted properties amid longtime homeowners. New restaurants opening in the area have capitalized on foot traffic from nearby Broad Street, making the neighborhood a key player in the city’s dining renaissance. The museum taking up residence in the armory adds to the transformation that’s already underway, Powell says, and more changes are afoot. A planned renovation of Abner Clay Park, bounded by Clay, Brook and Leigh streets, will create a new “front yard” for visitors to the armory. “To have an institution dedicated to black history in a nationally important African-American historic site is such a great fit,” she says. “Everything is happening the way I hoped it would.”

For Burrs, successfully restoring the armory will be the crowning achievement of his tenure at the museum’s helm. Along with relief and pride in his team, he says he feels joyful to have contributed to the revitalization and cultural heritage of a neighborhood once heralded as the Harlem of the South, home to some of Richmond’s most famous residents.

“To see it finally come to fruition,” he says, pausing to think, “I don’t even know what to say.”

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