Thursday, February 3, 2005

RICHMOND - An elite neighborhood where stately manors once housed top Confederate officials is slowly being replaced by parking garages and industrial high-rises, prompting historians to talk about moving the Museum and White House of the Confederacy.

Museum attendance has dwindled in recent years because construction projects and urban growth in the Court End neighborhood have deterred history buffs from visiting the landmark, museum officials say.

“There has been a lot of building taking place, and the ambience of the setting has been compromised,” said Robert H. Lamb, a member of the museum’s board of trustees. “I think Jefferson Davis would be shocked if he saw what was now surrounding the garden. It’s still a wonderful building, but a lot depends on the whole experience when someone comes to visit something.”

Built in 1818, the White House of the Confederacy was the most esteemed building in the city’s Court End neighborhood. Overlooking the city’s Shockhoe Valley, the White House served as a primary residence for Confederate President Jefferson Davis during the Civil War.

Today, the views of the stately house and its museum next door are blocked by parking decks and the expanding Medical College of Virginia, which is building a multilevel tower. The urban aspects, museum officials have said, have made the landmarks barely visible to passers-by.

That is why several Virginia lawmakers this year have proposed legislation that would allow the state to conduct a study to determine the feasibility of moving the landmark buildings to a spot that might attract more visitors.

A House Rules Committee subcommittee approved the legislation Jan. 27, and the full committee will consider it within the next week. The study would cost Virginia about $8,800.

Delegate Bill Janis, Goochland Republican who authored the legislation, and others from the Richmond area said the restored mansion is one of the state’s “greatest educational and tourist attractions.”

If approved, the legislature would create a study subcommittee that likely would include Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, five state delegates, three state senators, museum officials, and a representative of the Virginia Commonwealth University, whose medical campus and hospital have expanded in the area.

“It’s no longer compatible with the nature of the city,” Mr. Janis said. “If this organization goes bankrupt, because of the historic nature of the building, it’s not like we could take a wrecking ball to it. If we don’t do something and their ability to meet their bottom line dwindles, Richmond or Virginia will have to assume responsibility with a much greater expense to the taxpayers.”

Delegate Viola O. Baskerville, Richmond Democrat who initially co-sponsored the legislation, has taken her name off the bill. She said she was concerned the state would spend money on the museum, which is a non-state agency. “We have to decide if we are going down that road” of helping non-state agencies, she said.

Mr. Janis said the subcommittee would study the cost of moving one or both buildings and the feasibility of relocation from an engineering standpoint.

Attendance has declined from more than 60,000 annually a few years ago to an estimated 54,000 last year, museum officials said. Visitors complain about the difficulty of navigating the streets in the Court End neighborhood and about the lack of parking, officials said.

The museum, which is funded by private donations, is operating with a deficit.

“We haven’t decided yet whether to move, much less where and we want to get the state’s input on that,” said S. Waite Rawls III, the museum’s executive director. “By sharing our responsibility with the public, I think we will come to a better resolution.”

Mr. Rawls said the buildings are “great national treasures” that attract visitors from around the globe.

“Unfortunately, they are located in the path of the expansion of a very successful urban hospital,” he said, noting that in 20 years “we will be completely encircled and it will be significantly worse.”

The museum board of trustees is considering three options: to stay put at 12th and Clay streets in Richmond, to move the museum and the White House to another spot in the city or to move only the museum. Board members are expected to make a decision this year.

Brag Bowling, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he worries that relocating the museum could force officials to water down its message by including all Civil War history.

“The museum must remember their historical beginning in 1896 — they are a museum to show off the Confederacy and they should not be drawn into any politically correct stuff,” he said. “They lose everything if they become politically correct by becoming a Civil War museum or something. Its uniqueness is gone if they go the other way.”

Mr. Bowling said he would oppose the relocation of the White House. “Once it is moved from its original location, I think it loses a lot,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that something must be done to improve attendance at the museum. “They are stuck down there in the middle of a construction project,” he said. “Finding the museum isn’t easy.”

Mr. Bowling suggested that the museum advertise and post signs directing visitors to the landmark. He said the declining attendance does not signal a downward trend in those interested in the Civil War.

“People all over the world are interested in the Confederacy,” he said. “I think interest in the Civil War is probably as high as it has ever been.”

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