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Civil War museum finds a home

Philadelphia's museum of the Civil War and Underground Railroad will at last find a new home, in Independence Park's First Bank.

It has been a long time coming - nearly a decade - but yesterday leaders of the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia formally announced a new home, the neoclassical First Bank of the United States on South Third Street.

Standing in the bank's ornate three-story rotunda with its glass dome and Corinthian columns, E. Harris Baum, chairman of the museum's board of governors, declared it "one of the most significant days in the 119-year history of our museum."

A clutch of officials, including Mayor Street and Darla Sidles, acting superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, gathered for the announcement. They were joined by President A. Lincoln - Christian Johnson, in real life - and Civil War reenactors representing the U.S. Colored Troops Third Regiment color guard.

Last month, Street announced that the city would provide the museum with a $1.2 million capital grant.

"I've never been here, I'm not embarrassed to admit," Street ac knowledged to the gathering. "A great city, in order to be a wonderful place to live and work and visit, has to have amenities. It has to have amenities that draw people to it."

The Civil War museum, Street said, would eventually be such a place.

Baum said that the museum planned to announce a new executive director in the near future and then quickly launch a $25 million capital campaign to provide funds for building renovation. The First Bank, a National Historic Landmark designed by Samuel Blodgett and completed in 1797, is a part of Independence Park and is owned by the federal government. But it has been closed to the public for years and is largely used for storage and office space.

In the fall of 2002, Vincent J. Fumo and James Roebuck, Democratic state senators, worked to procure $15 million in state capital funding for the museum's building needs.

The museum will lease the building from the National Park Service, Sidles said; no lease agreement has been signed. Baum said both the museum and the park were committed to a long-term deal, and would formalize one as soon as a significant portion of the $25 million was raised.

Plans call for capital construction to commence in late 2008 or early 2009 and for the museum to open in its new home early in 2010, Baum said - just in time for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. A consortium of city institutions and historical organizations is planning Civil War-related events and exhibitions beginning in 2011.

The Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum is the reincarnation of the Civil War Library and Museum, which was formed after the war by a group of former Union officers and their families. The group, known as the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, donated virtually the entire collection, which is the largest and widely considered the finest such privately held collection in the country.

For years the museum operated out of a four-story townhouse at 1805 Pine St. But in the late 1990s, financial woes and disagreements among board members led the museum to seek alternatives. Following reports of the problems in The Inquirer, the state attorney general's office stepped in and blocked removal of the museum's artifacts from the city and eventually sued to remove the entire board of governors.

When the smoke cleared, the city had the prospect of a new and expanded museum devoted to recounting the human side of the Civil War and the effort to rid the country of slavery.

The museum building on Pine Street has been sold, but will remain open for at least another year or so. It houses the museum's collection of 3,000 artifacts including Jefferson Davis' smoking jacket; plaster casts of Lincoln's hands and face; a John Wilkes Booth wanted poster; rifles, pistols, swords and weapons of many kinds; the stuffed head of Old Baldy, Gen. George Meade's war horse (on indefinite loan from the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in Frankford); 7,000 photographs; 10,000 books; and a huge trove of original manuscripts, diaries, letters and journals.

The Abraham Lincoln Foundation, the charitable arm of the Union League on South Broad Street, is planning to open an archive and library and will take over stewardship of most of the museum's archival materials.

The new museum represents "another step in creating the kind of environment that will attract people to our city and our region," Street said. "If you're going to have a great city, you have to have a little of everything. There are people who will change their plans because they want to visit the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum."