© 2006 Virginia Review, LLC

Facility Facelift

New Facility Addition For Virginia Historical Society to Cap 175th Anniversary

By Charles F. Bryan Jr., PhD

The author, President and CEO of the Virginia Historical Society Charles F. Bryan Jr. is shown seated second from the left. Here he is surrounded by his trusted cadre of highly skilled professionals. They include, clockwise from Charlie Bryan, Director of Library Services Frances Pollard; Executive VP and COO and Paul Mellon Curator of Rare Books Robert F. Strohm; Director of Museums James C. Kelly; CFO and Treasurer Richard S. V. Heiman; Director of Manuscripts & Archives E. Lee Shepard; Executive Assistant to the President Carol Betsch; Director of Education William B. Obrochta; VP for Advancement Pamela R. Seay; and Director of Publications and Scholarship Nelson D. Lankford. They are shown in the VHS Reading Room where the VR Editor has spent many pleasant research hours.

One hundred and seventy five years is a long time to be in business, but the Virginia Historical Society (VHS), the oldest cultural intitution of its kind in the South, has accomplished just that.

The VHS is an institution that emerged during desperate times for the Commonwealth, and it has a long and colorful history of struggling for survival. We have undergone a number of physical changes in those 175 years. For the first 60 plus years, the VHS was “homeless,” with no permanent headquarters. We have survived war, having our collections scattered throughout the city, and mthe near annihilation of our endowment that was at one time completely invested in Confederate bonds. Throughout it all, the VHS has remained a private nonprofit dedicated to the mission of collection, conservation and interpretation of our state and, often national, history. But the VHS has done more than survive; it has flourished during some of the darkest times for the commonwealth. We emerged from our tumultuous early years with one of the largest American portrait collections outside of Washington, an intenationally renowned research library, award winning exhibitions and educational programs, and a manuscripts and archives collection with treasures ranging from George Washington’s diary to letters shared between families and lovers during World War II. In recognition of the high standards of museum professionalism and our success in the advancement of our mission, the American Association of Museums awarded us accreditation in 1988.

As a museum and safe harbor for objects, books, and manuscripts, a physical location is central to the operation of the Virginia Hostorical Society. But this simple thing–a place to be–proved elusive for a significant part of our 175 year history. Once we found our first permanent home, the Lee House in downtown Richmond, we were unable to wire our headquarters for electricity as the insurance companies saw our cramped conditions, packed with collections, as a “first class fire risk.” To them, we were an accident waiting to happen.

In 1946 the VHS acquired the Confederate Memorial Institute, or Battle Abbey, as it was more commonly known. We have called Battle Abbey home ever since. And this year we celebrate our 175th anniversary with a new wing complete with state of the art climate controlled storage facilities, new exhibition space, a new auditorium, a high tech classroom, and new offices to accommodate our growing staff of professionals dedicated to our educational mission.

In July we debut this new wing–our third major addition–that will provide desperately–needed space that is projected to accommodate our growing collections for the next 20 years. Perhaps it is because we’ve survived a long history peppered with the continued need for an adequate headquarters that we are sensitive to the topic of facilities and operations.

Desirous of furnishing their rooms with portraits of notable Virginians, in 1879 the members of the Westmoreland Club in Richmond invited the Virginia Historical Society to relocate its offices to the club’s Greek Revival building. Relatively speaking, the VHS’ tenure here was a lengthy one–14 years.

THE NEW WING

In 2000, concerns for preservation and the pressures of rapidly growing collections motivated the VHS to begin working with an architectural firm on a long range plan for the VHS’ physical facilities. As the study progressed, several basic principles emerged that guided subsequent thinking. The first of these was that the institution would continue to house all of its collections on–site. The Society’s collections consist not only of museum artifacts in the traditional sense of the word but also research materials that are regularly accessed, under careful scrutiny, by patrons in our library.

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A major objective was that any expansion be consonant with, though not identical to, the existing architecture of VHS headquarters. The configuration of the site would not permit a duplication of our second addition, completed in 1998. Both the earlier wings received acclaim for melding gracefully, yet unmistakably, with the original neoclassical structure, testimony to the skill of the architecture firm, who had been selected largely because of expertise in adaptive reuse of architecturally significant buildings.

With all of these considerations in mind, the project was a challenging one, and now that the wing is complete, it can be said that the challenges have been met. The new south wing includes nearly 55,000 square feet on a total of five floors.

The Lee House became its first home of its own in 1893 thanks to benefactor Joseph Bryan. This is the home Lee shared with his family during the Civil War.

VIRGINIA BUSINESS HISTORY CENTER

As mentioned, one of the compelling needs for our new wing was to accommodate our growing collections. As the result of a number of critical self evaluations, the VHS made a commitment to actively collect and preserve twentieth century history. As we embarked upon this endeavor, an interesting fact made itself clear: the dominant influence on twentieth century Virginia and America was business. Wars, social movements, political events–all were shaped largely by the currents of business and commerce. Indeed the very backbone of our progress as a state ties directly into our economics. Perhaps no effect of business has been more profound and pervasive than in its role as employer. How Virginians have made a living is a key component of the social and political story of Virginia in the twentieth and other centuries.

In 1946, the VHS merged with the Confederate Memorial Association and, by terms of the agreement, the VHS acquired the CM’ís headquarters building known as Battle Abbey, built on 1912–13. They also acquired the entire contents of the building, and a $55,000 endowment. After constructing an addition to the building in 1959, the VHS occupied Battle Abbey.

Although our first recognition of the importance of business to Virginia history was for the twentieth century, the state’s history intertwined with commerce from the very beginning. Virginia was founded as the Virginia Company of London, a joint stock venture, under a charter granted by King James I in 1606. Virginia is, in a sense, where both the “old” and “new” economies have taken root, yet there has been no central repository in the state to document business history and provide a central resource to scholars, businesses, and the public. The Reynolds Business History Center will be only the second business center of its kind in the US, along with the Minnesota Historical Society.

Virginia occupies what is, in many ways, a unique niche in the southern and American historical experience. In the earlier twentieth century, a substantial portion of the commonwealth came to be included in the massive industrial and manufacturing corridor of the eastern seaboard. This development has allowed Virginia to be tied into national networks of commerce, transportation, and technology in a manner that most southern states would not experience until the 1970s or 1980s. This unique position makes Virginia an ideal place to examine business developments, both state specific and national. Moreover, the state has not been dominated by a single industry or business (as have places like Texas or Delaware) for many years, resulting in the development of a cross section of types and sizes of companies in different economic sectors. Through the work of such well known business historians as Louis Galambos, there has emerged a realization that the study of business history is not confined to the study of corporations and entrepreneurs. The best scholarship reflects an understanding of the interconnected nature of business with society as a whole.

As there is no state funded history institution in Virginia to interpret the entire state’s history, the VHS has filled that void and, in 2004, the General Assembly formally recognized the VHS as Virginia’s official state historical society. In much the same manner, the Society has become the de facto center for Virginia business history. The Society’s collection of business and economic history is unparalleled in the state. No other repository, either in a public, private, or university setting, has acquired and made accessible such a significant group of materials. Since the addition of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad’s large archive, as well as the papers of Talbot and Brother of Richmond (supplier of iron and steam engines to the Confederacy), the Society has enlarged its holdings of business history resources dramatically. Today, the collections include the records of such influential firms as the Branch and Company investment house; Signet Banking Corporation; James River Corporation; Best Products Company; internationally known pharmaceutical manufacturer A H Robins Company; the remarkable department store chain Thalhimers; as well as the records and papers of the Reynolds Metals Company and the Reynolds family.

Looking more like a lunar observatory than a library, this is the VHS reading room as seen from the back parking lot. In 1992 funds were raised to expand and double the size of the VHS headquarters. This view shows part of the addition that added more space for a lecture hall for public events, more gallery space for exhibitions, a new reading room, and storage for the ever growing collections.

An arrangement between the Reynolds family and the VHS led not only to their decision to deposit their important papers with us but also to important gifts from the Reynolds Foundation and the Alcoa Foundation. Thus was born the Reynolds Business History Center and the VHS officially launched a $55 million campaign to support not only the center but also the construction of the new wing, endowment of many programs, and operations. The center’s goals are ambitious :

  • To tell the compelling stories of Virginia’s historically significant companies;
  • To prevent the further loss of seminal documentation by actively collecting materials from Virginia business and industry and making them available and easily accessible as educational resources;
  • To document the key role that business played in World War II, in the changing roles of women, in the civil rights movement, and in political life; and
  • To help businesses recognize the importance of preserving their significant records as well as provide the training and expertise to help them do so.

Programming for the Reynolds Business History Center will include a permanent exhibition, Virginians at Work, academic conferences, temporary exhibits, research fellowships, and an endowed position of business history curator. The center will strengthen our ties with scholars working in the areas of public policy, economics, and social history. We have already begun a 12 month partnership with Virginia Business that includes a monthly column to highlight the significance of business history and the rich holdings of the center.

In 1998, a generous gift by the Robins family made a new wing possible that began a partnership with the state Department of Historic Resources. The DHR rents part of the new space, and the remainder is home to the long term VHS exhibition “The Story of Virginia.”

HOUSING MUSEUM AND RESEARCH COLLECTIONS

From its establishment in 1831 through the 1980s, the VHS devoted most of its energies to collecting printed and manuscript materials. With the establishment of a museum department in 1990 and an active exhibition program, we began to actively seek out and acquire artifacts ranging in size from silver flatware to a Conestoga wagon. In the 1990s the collection of artifacts doubled in size, an increase made even more astounding when one considers that this figure is measured only in the number of accessions and not in the volume of storage space required to properly house some of the larger artifacts. As more people learned about the organization, including its collections and services, an ever growing number of books, family papers, and other records found their way from across the state to the Society’s research collections. Painfully aware that even “free” accessions represent a substantial investment in labor, materials, and storage, the VHS has always been highly selective in what it accepts, but even the application of these rigid criteria was insufficient to stem the tide. With the possible exception of book storage, which still had a modicum of expansion space available, the VHS was faced with a familiar problem: running out of room.

The new wing includes over 8,000 square feet of storage for the Society’s burgeoning corporate collections, nearly doubling current manuscript storage and providing a safe haven for millions of additional documents. Fourteen thousand square feet of critically needed museum storage space is provided over four floors and linked vertically by elevator. The space connects directly with museum gallery space, offices, and exhibition preparation areas. Even with the current rapid pace of accessions, these state of the art storage facilities, featuring compact storage throughout, should easily see the VHS through at least the next twenty years.

This year the newest addition to the VHS was completed in time for the 175th anniversary of the organization. This will house the new Reynolds Business History Center, new facilities for expanded public programs, and storage for growing collections that tell the story of Virginia’s past.

A LARGER LECTURE HALL

The new wing will also provide an opportunity to solve another major problem born of increased visibility and recognition–providing a venue for growing audiences at lectures and other programs. When the current 300 seat lecture hall was completed in 1992, the Society sponsored just three lectures per year, all in the evening and seldom attracting audiences of more than 150 to 200 people. Within several years it became apparent that the growing popularity of VHS programs was straining audience accommodations beyond their limits. One particularly popular evening program, the Wilkinson Lecture, that has featured such notable speakers as David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose, David Eisenhower, Shelby Foote, and David Gergen, has proven so popular that its location has been moved to the large sanctuary of a nearby church. Even the more modest noontime lecture series regularly draws a larger audience than can comfortably be accommodated in the lecture hall. The new wing features a theater style auditorium with fixed seating to afford the best acoustics and sight lines. This impressive new auditorium can accommodate a crowd of five hundred.

View of the newest addition to the VHS, the state’s defacto historical society from the Boulevard in Richmond.

EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM SPACE

When the education department was established, it was difficult to foresee the time when the VHS would attract more than 20,000 school students from around the state each year, or when there would be such demand for its outreach education specialists to travel to distant classrooms that two, or even three or four, staff members would not be able to meet it. It would have been equally difficult to imagine that the building would become a center for numerous teacher workshops, seminars, institutes, and conferences throughout the year. Yet all these activities are now commonplace and the new wing can accommodate them. To promote ease of access and orientation for schoolchildren, a stairway and elevator located near the main entrance lead to a 1,400 square foot education room one floor above. Here the children will be able to gather for orientation and other programs in an informal setting, and even work on projects related to the exhibits and artifacts they will experience. Here, too, during the summer or at other times when groups of schoolchildren are not touring, chairs and tables will be set up to host sessions for teachers in a more intimate, relaxed environment than previously available.

CREATING A GALLERY FOR A PERMANENT EXHIBITION, VIRGINIANS AT WORK

Adjoining the new education room are 3,000 square feet of newly created exhibit space, home to a permanent exhibit of Virginia business history entitled Virginians at Work.

The exhibit fully examines the social, economic, and political context of business, enterprises, and commerce in Virginia, from the development of marketable tobacco during the colony’s earliest days, to the pivotal roles that African Americans played in the state’s growing antebellum industrial might, to war’s devastation of manufacturing, to the New South’s proliferation of economic opportunities, and finally to the modern Virginia economy. The new education room and gallery of Virginia business history will be immediately adjacent to existing exhibition galleries and will provide an ideal point for children to begin their exploration of all aspects of Virginia’s history.

A CELEBRATION 175 YEARS IN THE MAKING

The 175 year road to today’s success for the Virginia Historical Society has been paved with a number of valuable lessons. Foremost among them is our acute understanding of the need for a building that facilitates the seamless operation of our library, our museum, and our other functions. Our physical space, and its recent improvements, enables us not only to serve our constituency of scholars, teachers, students, historians, and families, but also to promote an interdepartmental “cross pollination” of ideas and skills that already characterize many of the Society’s most successful efforts. We invite the commonwealth and out–of–state visitors to join us as we celebrate 175 years of history. For lovers of this state and its history, the Virginia Historical Society is the place to be.

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