Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Civil War museum won a battle, lost the war

A court fight kept it in Philadelphia, and Gov. Rendell promised aid for a new home. Now the state is reneging.

The Civil War Museum of Philadelphia - which state officials once believed was so critical to the city's cultural fabric that they waged a court fight to keep it here - has been refused promised capital funding by Gov. Rendell and has lost access to its planned new home in the heart of Independence National Historical Park.

The museum, a reconfigured version of the Civil War Library and Museum in the 1800 block of Pine Street for more than 80 years, has sold its old quarters and put its unparalleled collection of artifacts and documents in storage.

Now, officials said, the entire cache may be lost to the city - just a few years before a major, long-planned regional commemoration of the Civil War sesquicentennial is set to begin.

"We are back in a place where there's a big question mark whether a big part of Philadelphia's heritage is going to remain here," said Sharon A. Smith, president and chief executive of the museum. "That's an unpleasant place to be."

Rendell could not be reached directly for comment, but Charles Ardo, a spokesman, wrote in an e-mail Friday that the governor "has limited funds available to release, has already committed to numerous projects statewide and in the Philadelphia area, and, unfortunately, he cannot fund every project."

Former Union officers established the museum in 1888, and it possesses what many scholars believe is one of the nation's finest collections of Civil War materials - 3,000 artifacts including Jefferson Davis' smoking jacket; plaster casts of Abraham Lincoln's hands and face; the first John Wilkes Booth wanted poster; weaponry of all kinds; the stuffed head of Old Baldy, Gen. George Meade's trusty warhorse (on long-term loan from the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in Frankford); and an array of battle flags.

The museum ignited a furor in 2001 when it announced that it intended to move much of its collection to a museum planned for Richmond, Va., capital of the Confederacy.

Descendants of the Union officers who had donated virtually all of the holdings were particularly upset. Then-Attorney General Mike Fisher authorized a state suit in Orphans' Court to block the transfer, and several powerful politicians, including State Rep. James R. Roebuck and former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, both Philadelphia Democrats, crafted a plan to reconstitute the museum in the city of its birth.

The leadership of the old library and museum relented, and Fumo and Roebuck shepherded a $15 million capital bill through the legislature. Then-Gov. Richard Schweiker agreed to release the money, which would be used for conserving the collection and housing the museum in more-visible quarters.

In 2007, the museum reached an agreement with the National Park Service to move into the stately, neoclassical First Bank of the United States; restore the interior; and open up shop at Third and Chestnut Streets in time for the sesquicentennial in 2011.

The park service, which had been using the building for offices and storage, agreed to lease the space to the museum if funding was in hand by late 2008. According to E. Harris Baum, museum board chairman, and Smith, the chief executive, Rendell told museum officials in the spring of 2007 that money would be released when the legislature raised the debt ceiling - which it did last year.

Now Rendell has declined to release the money.

Ardo, his spokesman, said that "we've met with representatives of this project several times and have explained" that money is not available. He said Rendell had suggested that museum officials work through legislative caucuses to gain access to the money.

State Sen. Lawrence M. Farnese Jr., the Democrat who succeeded Fumo, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Dennis M. Reidenbach, director of the park service's Northeast Region, expressed disappointment that the museum would not be moving into the First Bank building, a National Historic Landmark. He said the park had extended its expired agreement with the museum in the hope that state funding would be released. When that did not happen, park officials agreed they needed to move forward with their own plans for the facility.

"This was something we hated to walk away from," Reidenbach said.

Roebuck, the state representative, said he was "very disappointed" that Rendell had declined to fund the building.

"I don't understand the governor's logic in this," Roebuck said. "Perhaps we should have let the collection go to Richmond. This is the question: Should we let a vital historical collection remain in the city, or should we let this unique collection go someplace else? Now we're back at square one, and we never should have been there in the beginning."

Kim Sajet, head of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, said that while more than 67 organizations would participate in the sesquicentennial commemoration, only one would have both high visibility and a total focus on the conflict - the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia.

That is now threatened.

"They are an unfortunate victim of how we value our history and heritage organizations," Sajet said. "It's a huge loss. We have to make sure we keep the collection in the city. Absolutely."

The museum's Baum and Smith said they were scrambling to find another home in the historic district.

"We are in a serious bind," Smith said. "We closed our building in '08. Our collection is in storage. All of the architectural work on the First Bank, all of the planning, all of our business plan - those no longer have meaning."

She wrote in an e-mail late Friday: "We never would have invested about 3/4 million on all of the plans for the new museum if we didn't think we had the Gov's commitment."