- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — A red signal lantern appears and disappears in the distance until, as one survivor aboard an iconic ironclad lost at sea during the Civil War would write to his wife, “The Monitor was no more.”

That lantern bobs on the waves in the unusual introductory “video art installation” at a new wing of the Mariners’ Museum that houses more than 1,200 artifacts from the Union ship, from silverware and sconces to the engine and revolutionary gun turret.

The $30 million center opens today — the 145th anniversary of the Monitor’s battle with the Confederate armored ship CSS Virginia in the famous first clash of ironclads that took place a few miles from the museum.

The four-hour duel between the Monitor, a new design by John Ericsson, and the Virginia, built atop the burned-out hull of the Union steam frigate Merrimack, ended in a draw but transformed naval warfare by making wooden ships obsolete.

Months later, the Monitor sank, upside down, during a storm 16 miles off North Carolina’s coast, at a site that was designated the nation’s first marine sanctuary in 1975.

Visitors to the center emerge, perhaps a bit queasy, from the opening presentation about that storm to learn how the wreckage was discovered in 1973. Then they come upon the actual lantern — the last thing the crew saw before the Monitor went under and the first artifact recovered from the ship.

“This will be a surprise to people. Everybody will walk in with the assumption that we’re starting with the battle, what everything was famous for,” said Jeff Johnston, program specialist with the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

“We actually start it at the end, then take you back to the beginning,” he said.

The 63,500-square-foot center features 18,000 square feet of exhibition space — or “ironclad goodness,” as curator Anna Holloway jokingly refers to it — and 20,000 square feet of conservation labs and classrooms.

The center is a way of bringing the Monitor to people, since the sanctuary site is so remote, she said.

“The Monitor Center is the visitor center for the marine sanctuary,” she said.

Miss Holloway makes a point of noting that the word “Monitor” is absent from the title of the center’s main exhibition, “Ironclad Revolution.”

“We wanted people to understand it’s not just about the Monitor,” she said. “It’s about the ironclads, the Virginia, and it’s also about the technology … to research and recover the Monitor.”

The Virginia was destroyed by its own crew on May 11, 1862, to keep the ship out of the hands of advancing Union forces. Items on display from the Virginia include its iron wheel and the drawings that guided the ship’s construction.

A series of galleries tell how the ironclads were built, with a full-scale replica of part of the Virginia and a reproduction of the living quarters of the Monitor, and of early attempts to recover artifacts as well as the partnership among the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the museum to recover artifacts from 1998 through 2002.

Throughout the museum are 6-foot-tall “personal story stations” with screens that visitors can touch to watch scientists, historians, modern naval officers and actors depicting historical figures talk about the ships.

A highlight of the center is the high-definition “Battle Theater,” a modern version of the 19th-century cyclorama, a pictorial representation that encircled viewers.

The center’s “theater in the round” has 45 seats that swivel so viewers can turn 360 degrees to experience the action and even feel the concussion of cannons firing as the Battle of Hampton Roads is re-created through digital paintings, lights and sometimes startling sounds.

On March 8, 1862, the Virginia destroyed two warships and damaged a third in the U.S. Navy’s worst defeat until Pearl Harbor. The next morning, as the narrator intones, “iron met iron.”

While the battle between the Monitor and Virginia is considered a draw, the Virginia was stymied in its mission to end the Union’s blockade of the region.

Outside the center, visitors may stroll the deck of a 170-foot, full-scale exterior model of the Monitor, built by employees of the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard, the nation’s only maker of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

The faux Monitor includes a re-creation of the original’s most famous feature: the revolving, cylindrical gun turret that eyewitnesses to the battle called a “cheesebox on a raft.”

Inside the center, visitors can walk into a re-creation of the turret as it was found, upside down and encrusted with seashells. There’s also a cutaway that shows how the turret was made of 192 1-inch-thick iron plates fastened together in layers around an iron skeleton to form an 8-inch-thick shield.

The turret became the ancestor of every gun turret in the Navy because it was a significant design improvement. The Monitor could remain in place while training its two guns on a target while other ships were forced to move the entire vessel to aim their banks of guns.

The turret still is being conserved in a process that could take about 20 years; visitors can climb a catwalk to peer into the 10-foot-high tank in which the turret sits as salts are slowly being leached from it.

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