Even though it won’t officially open to the public until May, the eagerly anticipated American Civil War Museum held its first opening event Thursday.
Inside the lobby of the $25 million, 29,000-square-foot museum, the legendary ironworks served as a stage and set for a bare-bones opera based on the poet Walt Whitman and his experiences tending to wounded soldiers during the Civil War.
“When I first saw the opera in Brooklyn, I thought, ‘How can I get this to the museum?’ ” said Patrick Daughtry, director of development.
The American Civil War Museum is in the last stages of getting ready for its grand opening May 4. Only the lobby and the second-floor balcony were open for Thursday’s event. The main gallery spaces were under construction, with workers coming in and out of the museum.
The glass-walled lobby incorporates the enclosed ruins of the old Tredegar Ironworks, which date to the 1800s. The ironworks produced iron for the railroad industry, as well as cannonballs and munitions for the Civil War.
The museum near the James River in downtown Richmond has been under construction since 2017, combining the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar and the Museum of the Confederacy into one new museum that aims to tell the stories of the Union and the Confederacy, as well as African-Americans, Native Americans, women, children and immigrant communities.
The new building designed by 3North was built using 1,100 cubic yards of concrete, 170 tons of steel and 30,000 bricks, as well as other materials.
Movement, vibration and crack gauge monitoring systems were installed during construction to make sure the ruin walls wouldn’t be damaged.
Lights were installed in the lobby floor to dramatically illuminate the brick ruins, and acoustic tiles have been added to the building to reduce noise.
The first floor will house 6,000 square feet for the main, permanent exhibition. Large-scale images of Civil War figures such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman adorn the walls around the main galleries.
Upstairs, the second floor will house 2,300 square feet of temporary exhibit space, as well as a balcony that offers a stunning view of the James River and the active train trestle.
“Back when architecture was the only art form, when leaders erected a building, like a cathedral or a municipal building, they were making a statement,” Daughtry said. “They were saying, ‘This is who we are as a people.’”
Likewise, Daughtry said, the new American Civil War Museum makes a powerful statement, incorporating the ruins of the ironworks into a building that aims to tell a fuller, more inclusive narrative of the Civil War.
“The building of this museum tells you three things at once. It tells you, ‘I see the past, I enter the present, and I see the future of our history,’ ” Daughtry said.
On Saturday, there will be a members-only reception and preview of the museum’s lobby space following a symposium called “A People’s Contest: Struggles for Nation and Freedom in Civil War America” at the Library of Virginia.
“I’m beyond excited to share years of work by our talented staff, designers, historians and consultants that helped bring the vision of the museum to life,” Christy Coleman, CEO of the new museum, said in an emailed statement. “It has been a labor of love, challenges, joy and innovation. We all hope that the building, exhibits and programs will resonate with all visitors about the importance of the Civil War in our lives today — politically, socially and otherwise.”