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Museum Will Move To Independence National Park

Deborah Fitts

- (September 2007) PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - The First Bank of the United States building at Independence National Historical Park will be the new home of the Civil War & Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia.

"It's gorgeous," declared E. Harris Baum, chairman of the museum's board of governors. The columned, neo-classical structure on Third Street was completed in 1795 and is the country's oldest bank building.

Baum hailed the "new prestigious location that will be second-to-none in the historical heart of the city."

The bank's three floors offer triple the space of the museum's present home, a townhouse at 1805 Pine St.

Another benefit will be the tourists who flock to Independence's 55 acres of historic properties. The building is a stone's throw from the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and other nationally known sites.

Baum said renovating the bank building, creating new exhibits and making the move are estimated at $25 million He predicted that the museum would be in its new home "by the end of 2009 or in early 2010."

The move will coincide with a new interpretive approach. "Our story is a little different from other Civil War museums," Baum said. "We're not focusing on battles, but what it was like to live in Philadelphia during the war."

A key subject is slavery. Baum said National Park Service (NPS) officials decided to lease the building to the museum partly because it would address an issue that confounded the founding fathers.

"Slavery became so volatile they pushed it aside," he explained. "We want to take up that issue as part of the democratic progress of our country."

The museum, formerly named the Civil War Library & Museum, signed a letter of intent with NPS in February 2006 to lease the bank building for 40 years renewable every 40 years.

During the Civil War the First Bank building housed the offices of the provost marshal that guarded the city's public buildings. Next door was the banking house of Jay Cooke, a major financier of the Union war effort.

NPS acquired the bank building in 1955. They once used it for park offices, but it has been empty in recent years, according to Baum, and is not open to the public.

He said "a lot of improvements" will have to be made before the move can take place, including expanding interior walls to create space for exhibits and educational programs, installing an elevator and the like.

Plans also call for a museum store and a small restaurant. Work could begin in about eight months, Baum said.

"We have to be careful not to affect the historical fabric of the building," he cautioned. Taking the lead on building plans is the Philadelphia architectural firm Vitetta, a supporter of the museum.

The museum boasts 3,000 artifacts, thousands of photographs, a 7,000-volume library, hundreds of art works and nearly 100 linear feet of letters, diaries, muster rolls and the like, some of which are displayed in nine galleries.

Baum's board has entered into an agreement with another Philadelphia Civil War institution - and a close partner - the Union League. The museum will loan 3,000 volumes to the League's Abraham Lincoln Foundation for its own Civil War library. This would likely occur in 2009, according to Baum.

"We want to be strictly a museum," Baum stated. As for the museum's name, it may change again. Baum cited "focus groups and experts" addressing the issue, but "We're not sure yet."

He did not appear daunted by the $25 million price tag for the move. In July the City of Philadelphia announced a $1.2 million grant to the museum, kicking off its capital campaign to renovate the bank building.

Baum said state matching funds would double the grant to $2.4 million. The museum will also appeal to private and corporate donors, and expects further state and federal grant funding, he said.

Meanwhile, annual state grants of $400,000 are covering operating costs. Recently a $347,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation completed an inventory of the collection.

The museum expects to name a new executive director shortly. Deputy Director Beth Becker has been presiding over two other full-time staffers, plus part-timers and volunteers.

The Civil War Library & Museum opened its doors in 1888, founded on the support and memorabilia of Philadelphia-area Union officers. It touts itself as "the nation's oldest Civil War museum."

Since 1922 it has been located at the Pine Street building. Faltering visitation and shrinking finances led to the museum's reorganization in 2003 under a new board.

A slick advertising booklet on the bank-building plans stated, "The museum is recreating and repositioning itself as an entirely new entity that will advance the story of the Civil War beyond the battlefield to the home front."

The board's "vision" asserts that the museum will "serve as the leading gateway for interpreting the Civil War experience in the mid-Atlantic region, anchoring a network of sites that focus on issues of slavery, freedom and the Civil War."

The museum's 1805 Pine St. facility is open Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. More information is available online at www.cwurmuseum.org.

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