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Seminary Ridge Museum highlights facility, new story lines for Civil War 150

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Erica Johnson, top, and William Kissel position a platter in a display at the Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg. The museum mount-makers work for Explus Inc., the Virginia-based firm handling the exhibit fabrication and installation in the 20,000 square feet of exhibit space at the new Civil War museum. Photo/Amy Spangler
Erica Johnson, top, and William Kissel position a platter in a display at the Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg. The museum mount-makers work for Explus Inc., the Virginia-based firm handling the exhibit fabrication and installation in the 20,000 square feet of exhibit space at the new Civil War museum. Photo/Amy Spangler

Some museums start out with an idea and create the building to match. The Seminary Ridge Museum opening in Adams County this year is the opposite.

Stakeholders are wrapping up the $15 million overall endeavor that is transforming a more than 175-year-old building and property with Civil War significance into a new area attraction.

The work started as a method of preservation.

The building on the grounds of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg is perhaps best known to Civil War historians for its cupola, from which Union Gen. John Buford viewed the area on the first day of battle.

The museum's top floor focuses on this day, which receives relatively less focus elsewhere in the community compared with the latter two battle days, Executive Director Barbara Franco said.

Then, one floor down are exhibits devoted to the battle's wounded — sometimes in graphic detail. The building served as a hospital, with its last Civil War patient leaving two-and-a-half months after the battle ended, Franco said.

The second floor and last stop on the tour is called Faith and Freedom, which examines how differing views of religion and freedom played into shaping opinions up to and during the war.

"I think that's going to be not necessarily the reason people come, because they are interested in the cupola and the battle, but (it) will leave them really thinking about the issues of the Civil War in a new way," Franco said.

The museum will open to the public July 1, just in time for the high-profile and regionally lucrative 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

According to the Gettysburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, 4 million visitors are expected in Adams County this year, about 1 million more than normal. Visitor spending could be almost $150 million higher than the slightly more than $600 million in spending in 2011, the bureau said,

The museum's opening will boost the visitor experience for the 150th commemoration and beyond, bureau President Norris Flowers said.

First, it gives the community a grand opening of an attraction to coincide with the anniversary, he said. It also appeals to visitors who are interested in Civil War medicine or the African-American experience during the war.

The focus on religion also really helps to set it apart, Flowers said.

"I think it will appeal to a visitor who is looking for something a little different," he said.

The building itself is perhaps the greatest artifact for the museum and, in addition to the themed exhibits, there will be a flip book on each floor telling the story of the structure, Franco said.

Starting in the 1830s, its uses have included seminary dormitory, Civil War hospital and historical society headquarters, she said.

Roughly 50 or 60 years ago, the building was no longer usable as a dormitory, Franco said. There were discussions about what to do with it, and ultimately the Adams County Historical Society moved there.

The society became the long-term caretaker and steward of the building, getting it added to the National Register of Historic Places and performing some renovation.

But it did not have the money for more substantial work, and conversations started anew around the end of the 1990s about what would become of the building, Franco said. That's about when the idea of a museum emerged.

Jennifer Line, architectural designer with York-based Murphy & Dittenhafer Inc., said she became involved with the project in summer 2007 and has served as project manager. Her interest in history was among the reasons her boss assigned her to the project.

The project's timeline and circumstances allowed the team to look at every possible design plan and work with a host of consultants, making it a textbook example of how a historic preservation project can work, Line said.

The work included a lot of investigation, such as seeing which windows could be preserved and which had to be restored, and parts of the restoration efforts included using old photographs, Line said.

One of the biggest challenges was that the building had no heating and air-conditioning system or sprinkler system, which had to be installed without interfering with the historical character, she said.

Workers installed the equipment in the ceilings of each floor to keep the floorboards in place and intact, Line said.

In addition, the exhibits are designed and installed in such a way as to keep aspects of the rooms visible, Franco said.

To help make sure the work fulfilled requirements for historic tax credits used to partially finance the project, only a few spaces were opened up to make way for larger displays, she said.

Historic credits and the New Markets Tax Credit Program have been employed along with taking on debt, a capital campaign and a state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program allocation to pay for the endeavor, Franco said.

Restraints created unique challenges for designers, but with positive results, Franco said.

"In the long run, that discipline is really going to make the museum distinctive," she said. "Much more welcoming, and a much more interesting experience for our visitors."

About the museum

The Seminary Ridge Museum is a partnership of the Adams County Historical Society, the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and the Seminary Ridge Historic Preservation Foundation.

The foundation is the museum's operator, Executive Director Barbara Franco said.

The three museum story lines were developed early in the process, with the second floor serving as the "most problematic and the most interesting all at the same time," she said.

The historical society wanted to tell the story of Adams County as a border community with a connection to the Underground Railroad and where there was local contention over the issue of slavery.

At the same time, the seminary itself had ties to the anti-slavery movement. The founder, Samuel Simon Schmucker, was outspoken against slavery, Franco said.

In addition, abolitionist figure Daniel Alexander Payne attended the seminary and went on to become the bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

People on the other side of the issue had very different views of faith and freedom and justified slavery, and the second-floor exhibit explores the juxtaposition of religious views, Franco said.

Toward the end of the floor, exhibits invite the views of participants and even put them in the shoes of historical figures who were faced with dilemmas, she said.

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey covers York County, agribusiness, energy and environment, and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at brentb@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @brentburkey.

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