- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

Its gleaming, slanted pinnacle juts over the trees along Interstate 95, enticing drivers to slow down and take a look. This bold glass-and-metal crown turns out to be the most memorable part of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, which was dedicated yesterday in a ceremony attended by President Bush. It sits on top of a structure that appears not to be a building, but a hill covered in grass.

This bunker is more evidence of an alarming trend in the design of Washington cultural institutions: forcing the public underground. Its earth-covered structure is a cousin of the subterranean museums and visitors centers designed for Mount Vernon, the U.S. Capitol and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Burying additions next to historically significant structures is somewhat understandable, but the new Marine Corps museum has no such excuse: It occupies 135 acres of secluded parkland next to the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., with no other building in sight.

So why not create a transparent enclosure in this wooded setting instead of an impenetrable mound?

“It was important to us to symbolize the Marines taking the hill and to have the museum grow from a hill that was on the site already,” says Curt Fentress of Denver-based Fentress Bradburn Architects in explaining his design for the museum.

Mr. Fentress is no stranger to topographical metaphors: His tented passenger terminal at Denver International Airport is meant to mirror the Rockies’ snowcapped peaks, a wildlife art museum in Wyoming to resemble a rock formation on a mountainside.

For the Quantico museum, his inspiration came from well-worn imagery: the celebrated photograph of Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima during World War II and the memorial statuary near Arlington Cemetery that was modeled on that snapshot.

In abstracting the flag-raisers’ pose, Mr. Fentress shaped an uplifting symbol for the museum in a saillike skylight and mast. The tilted, conical structure, accented by fanning stainless-steel ribs that express a sense of movement, is the building’s most striking feature and establishes an instantly recognizable icon.

However, the big strokes that are so compelling on the highway disappoint closer up. Instead of gracefully tapering to a point, the mast is severed abruptly and covered in a noticeable grid pattern of metal. Where the skylight meets the roof, a round, aluminum-clad strip covers the connection like a cheap cigar band.

For the remainder of the building, Mr. Fentress all too literally translated the mountain beneath the flag-raisers’ feet into a round structure with sloping sides covered with sod. This artificial hill, punctuated by concrete walls, drainpipes and exit doors, has as much appeal as a bomb shelter. Plunked on top of its peak, the skylight appears disembodied from the rest of the building.

Besides the huge crown, the only real architecture is the front facade. This gray aluminum-paneled wall is as cold and tough as a Marine drill sergeant. Set between sloping walls of concrete at the end of a fan-shaped plaza, it is flanked by low, dark pedestals. Projecting metal fins, similar in design to the skylight’s struts, support a canopy over a row of glass doors. A slot above the entrance on the second floor provides some of the few windows in the museum.

Once inside the stoic, sealed-up building, the visitor finally feels a touch of warmth in the rotunda beneath the skylight. This sunlit circular hall, lined in travertine and portrait-filled niches beneath stirring inscriptions, conveys an air of stately permanence befitting a museum. Mr. Fentress obviously made an effort to follow the canon of monumental Washington in this dignified yet contemporary space.

The solemnity of the combination display-ceremonial chamber, dubbed the Leatherneck Gallery after the protective collars worn by Revolutionary War-era Marines, is broken by some nifty unexpected touches. Slicing up through the middle of the room is the angled base of the mast. Its simple stainless-steel-paneled diagonal connects inside to outside, ground to sky, and directs the eye upward to the huge skylight.

Behind this shiny pier, a gray metal staircase with an elevator, designed to recall the tower on a battleship, leads to the top of the room. It provides a lofty vantage point for appraising not only the planes hung from the ceiling, but the skylight’s steel girders and glass, through which treetops are visible.

From this observation deck, visitors disembark on a second-floor hallway encircling the rotunda. Steel balconies on one side of this level provide more views of the skylit gallery, while on the other, windows overlook the displays in the main exhibit hall. The spacious passageway, also used for temporary shows, leads to the “mess hall” cafeteria over the entrance — the only public space with windows. Next door is a pub modeled on the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, where the first Marine Corps was conceived in 1775.

Off the rotunda on the ground floor, exhibits are clustered in darkened spaces at the building’s perimeter. They don’t occupy defined galleries but a warehouse with exposed ceiling ducts and pipes, which are painted black. The raw interiors suit the larger displays, including action figures hanging from the ceiling and a tower filled with old weaponry.

However, without any architectural definition or reference to the outdoors, the exhibit sequence feels slightly claustrophobic and haphazard, completely at odds with the light-filled order of the central gallery.

Though it opens to the public on Monday, the 118,000-square-foot building and its surroundings aren’t quite finished. The museum will grow to 181,000 square feet when more exhibits are installed on the side nearest the highway, behind blind archways in the rotunda now covered in stone.

It will become the centerpiece of the Marine Corps Heritage Center, a complex of structures on the site that is to include a hotel and conference hall. A nondenominational chapel eventually will be built in the woods, off the path lined with donor bricks now leading to an overlook on the side of the museum. Let’s hope these future buildings have windows.

WHAT: National Museum of the Marine Corps

WHERE: 18900 Jefferson Davis Highway (Route 1); reached off Interstate 95 from Exit 150A to Route 1

WHEN: Open Monday; daily except Christmas from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 800/397-7585

WEB SITE: www.usmcmuseum.org

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