Sunday, January 13, 2013

Halls of History

Gettysburg's Newest Attraction: The Seminary Ridge Museum

This past September, I was able to arrange a quick preview tour of Gettysburg's newest attraction: the Seminary Ridge Museum.  Located in the original Lutheran Theological Seminary near the Chambersburg Pike, the structure has undergone a $15 million renovation for the upcoming 2013 sesquicentennial of the battle.  Previously serving as the home of the Adams County Historical Society, this new museum will be dedicated to multiple layers of Civil War and local history.  These facets will include the July 1, 1863 battle, the building's role as a field hospital, and also the conflict as a theological and moral crisis in regard to religion and freedom.  As of the moment, construction workers are and have been working rapidly in order to complete the building by this summer.  The last I heard, a "light" opening will be taking place in the spring and the grand opening will be occurring on the battle anniversary itself.  From April through June, special group tours can be arranged.  The new attraction will surely add yet another useful dimension to comprehending Gettysburg's rich story.  Now, let's go on a hardhat tour....

We first met with Barbara Franco, the founding executive director of the museum, in the Wentz Library.  Barbara was the former director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum in Commission and is helping to spearhead this new endeavor.  Here, she discussed fundraising, restoration news, and museum goals as the project quickly moves forward.  In addition to numerous multi-media exhibits and period-furnished rooms, the museum will feature several large murals with the artwork of Dale Gallon.  The large canvas painting seen in the background will be reproduced and enlarged at high resolution, covering an entire wall upon completion.  This one in particular shows the seminary building at the end of the first day's battle as it became a mass field hospital.  Over 600 soldiers were treated there.

In front of the painting sits a model of one of the museum floors.  With this, we can obtain a sense of how the new facility will be designed.  Decades of more modern features, fixtures, walls, and furnishings have been removed.  This historical excavation plans to remove certain post-war layers of the building's interior and restore it closer to its 1863 architectural appearance.  Within these restored spaces will be artifact cases, films, interactive exhibits for kids, and recreated scenes with the use of mannequins and props.  The plan is elaborate and most impressive.  According to one article, "On the third floor’s [display], 'Steeped in Sorrow and Death,' guests will see how the former dorm was converted to a hospital and learn the stories of the wounded, dying, and the surgeons and nurses who treated them."

Before we entered the seminary building, we took a quick glance at some artifacts that had been recovered from the walls of the historic structure, including this post-war letter addressed to a student of the seminary.  A whole treasure trove of items have been discovered in the various nooks and crannies of the site, featuring letters, shoes, plates, bottles and various nicknacks of the past.

And this is perhaps the coolest of them.  This was a letter addressed to Noah Koontz, of Co. D, 142nd Pennsylvania Infantry, from his family in Somerset, PA.  Koontz was cared for at the seminary following his wounding in the battle.  Dated July 1863, the letter is in amazingly pristine condition for having been stuck between floorboards for a century and a half.  Koontz survived the war and later the Johnstown Flood of 1889.  One tough guy, eh?

Barbara then took Ranger Cas and I into the building.  Dozens of workers were swarming the large hallways, doing everything from drywall to joist repair to electrical work.  Here, we look out of the second story window gazing eastward toward town.  In this yard between the museum and the residential area will be a mile-long walking trail featuring interpretive wayside markers telling the stories of soldiers and civilians engulfed in the battle.

Two levels below that window will be the main entrance for visitors.  Inside this door will be a reception area where guests will pay admission and can obtain information.  This entrance will connect directly with the walking trails that will encircle the property.

What about the cupola on top of the building?  Will that be open?  Yes, it will be.  If you are willing to pay a little bit extra in your admission, you can go on a special half-hour tour of the upper floor of the seminary (seen above) in addition to the famous lookout.  The view is awesome to say the least.  Just keep in mind that its not the same cupola where General John Buford stood on July 1.  That was struck by lighting and destroyed by fire in 1913.  The tin plating surrounding its base prevented the fire from spreading to the rest of the building.  Phew!

I am very much anticipating the opening of this museum.  I have been pleased to see the civilian role in the battle taking on an increasingly prominent part in the larger saga of the fight.  In one interview, Barbara Franco stated, “People talk about walls talking. In this case the walls have been chattering to us. . . .The building itself is our major artifact. It’s a great place to start any visit to Gettysburg because it focuses on the battle’s first day.”  Given its prime location near the Lincoln Highway, I'm sure that will be just the case.  Be sure to visit the museum's website and Facebook page to receive further updates as we near the grand opening on July 1.

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