- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2005

Directors of the Museum of the Confederacy are trying to move the museum and the Confederate White House from downtown Richmond, and preservationists are girding to protect them.

The two sides today will testify before a state panel about how best to preserve the historical value and integrity of the mansion and reverse the museum’s declining attendance and shrinking budget.

There’s no consensus among panel members who are trying to come up with a recommendation about what to do with the museum and White House, which have been shadowed by the growing Medical College of Virginia (MCV) hospital, operated by Virginia Commonwealth University.

S. Waite Rawls III, the museum’s executive director, wants to relocate both the museum and the mansion where Jefferson Davis presided over the Confederate government, and this has raised the ire of historians and preservationists.

“We have been irreparably harmed by the expansion of the hospital,” Mr. Rawls says. “If we cannot do something to alleviate the problems that visitors have in coming to see us … we simply have a financial disaster on our hands where we cannot afford to stay open.”

Mr. Rawls says attendance reached a high of 91,000 visitors in 1991 but will be less than 50,000 at the end of this year. The museum, funded by private donations, is operating at a “very large” deficit.

Others say moving the White House would decrease its significance and damage the mansion’s superstructure.

“The White House of the Confederacy was in effect the epicenter of the world stage from 1861 to 1865,” says Robert H. Lamb, who resigned from the museum’s board earlier this year because of frustration over attempts to relocate the buildings.

Mr. Lamb says the museum’s board has shown a “lack of imagination” in working to find solutions and will make his case before the panel today with several proposed solutions.

The Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is opposed to moving the White House, saying relocation would relegate the landmark “to the status of an incomplete artifact.” A resolution, adopted earlier this year, argues that the museum’s board has failed to show how relocation would increase visitation or revenue.

“The Virginia division does consider any plan to partially or completely disassemble and relocate the White House of the Confederacy to be a shameful and repugnant act in direct confrontation with our belief in monument preservation.” The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. today at the General Assembly Building.

Mr. Lamb argues that keeping the buildings where they are is crucial. “You take a building out of its context, and it really diminishes the value of the little skeleton you have left,” he says.

Mr. Lamb and preservationists say moving it could destroy the physical framework of the mansion. “They would have to carve the building up like a Christmas turkey and leave some of it behind to be demolished,” he says.

Mr. Rawls says the museum has heard from specialists who say the mansion would not be damaged. The first White House of the Confederacy, in Montgomery, Ala., the provisional capital of the Confederacy, was preserved when it was relocated several years ago.

“They’ve moved larger buildings, older buildings and more fragile buildings,” Mr. Rawls says. “Many, many, many other historically significant sites have been moved and have not lost their historic significance.”

Preservationists argue that the site is just as important as the mansion. Surrounding the White House are other landmarks, including St. Paul’s Church, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis worshipped, and the Capitol where the Confederate Congress met.

“If the White House were moved, these relationships, these connections, would be destroyed,” says Kathleen S. Kilpatrick, director of the state Department of Historic Resources, which preserves Virginia landmarks.

Ms. Kilpatrick says downtowns naturally tend to evolve at their historic origins. “Think of Boston, New York, Philly, Baltimore and other great American first cities,” she says. “But history has not been lost altogether, and we shouldn’t toss it out.”

The White House of the Confederacy, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, is held in the same esteem as the state Capitol, Monticello and Mount Vernon, she says.

Moving the mansion would cause it to lose its status on the state and federal registers. Built in 1818, the White House of the Confederacy was the most revered building in the city’s Court End neighborhood at 12th and Clay streets. Overlooking the city’s Shockoe Valley, the White House served as a primary residence for the Davis family during the War Between the States. Today, urban growth has made the landmarks barely visible to passers-by and parking is scarce.

The panel, made up of state and municipal officials, community members, historians and museum board members, was formed earlier this year to study the feasibility of moving one or both of the landmarks to a spot that might attract more visitors.

Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, a former governor, has not taken a position on the matter, city spokesman Linwood Norman says. Mr. Wilder is not a member of the panel.

Delegate Bill Janis, a panel member, says he has received hundreds of letters from across the globe with advice on how to save the White House. “[They say] this is an absolutely priceless treasure, a historical heirloom, and the General Assembly should do everything in its power to save it.”

He says this might be one of the rare cases in which the state should agree to some public financing for a private entity. “The White House cannot long survive as a privately owned and operated museum at its current location,” he says.

The museum breaks even with between 80,000 and 90,000 visitors per year, Mr. Rawls says. He thinks because the MCV hospital is a state institution, the state government bears some responsibility for finding a solution.

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