- Associated Press - Saturday, October 4, 2014

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) - Though it’s only a fraction of the money needed to completely restore the tornado-ravaged Barnum Museum to its former glory, museum Executive Director Kathleen Maher cheered the approval of $183,510 in state grant funds to begin improvements to the historic building.

The money, which comes from the Department of Economic and Community Development and the State Historic Preservation Office, will go to restoring the museum’s east wall. The wall was badly damaged by a June 2010 tornado that whipped through the city, devastating many downtown buildings.

“It was amazing that the wall didn’t collapse,” Maher said Thursday, adding that bricks were hanging out of the structure following the storm. The wall is now held up with scaffolding.

City of Bridgeport spokesman Brett Broesder called the approval of the grant “great news.”

“There is still more work to be done at the site, but these state funds — coupled with the city’s investment — will get the ball rolling on fixing structural issues with this historic building,” he said.

The city is contributing to some of the “soft” costs of rebuilding the wall, including engineering and architectural services. The grant, Maher said, only covers “hard” costs, such as contractors for the project.

The blow to the wall was just a piece of the tornado’s wrath suffered by the museum, which is more than a century old. The storm smashed the building’s front windows, sending glass and water into the museum’s interior and some of its collections. The museum’s famed dome shifted and some of the tornado’s debris lodged in the bricks.

The museum was hit so hard that it closed for more than a year before partially reopening in 2012.

Broesder said Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch is “committed to helping ensure the museum gets up and running again. It’s in a key location downtown. And it’s a landmark that honors an American icon and former mayor of our great city” — P.T. Barnum.

Maher said the building will need between $17 million and $20 million in repairs. In addition to the state funding, the museum has raised more than $1 million, and Maher said she’s working to secure additional money.

Trying to recover from the tornado has been a struggle, but she has worked hard to remain positive and constructive, Maher said.

“It’s emotionally hard to keep your enthusiasm going when every day you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to deal with this disaster,’ ” she said.

Though the funding to repair the east wall is just a slice of what’s needed, Maher said the grant approval is a turning point.

“I’m going to put balloons outside, the day that darn scaffolding is gone,” she said.

Maher said she plans to put the project on the east wall restoration out to bid as soon as possible, and hopes work will start in November.

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