A window into South Sound’s Army history is coming out of the cobwebs, but not as quickly as Joint Base Lewis-McChord intended when it closed its public museum for a $9.6 million renovation two years ago.
Unexpected deterioration in the 92-year-old building ate up so much of the museum’s construction budget that five of its main exhibits are still under wraps. The displays await funds and workers to put them up where they belong.
In the meantime, the Army last week hosted a “soft opening” for the completed exhibits at the Lewis Army Museum. They take visitors back to the earliest days of the military’s presence in Washington State, showing the deep blue infantry uniforms worn in the 1850s.
“We can’t go forward with what we do to train our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines without talking about our history,” Lewis-McChord installation commander Col. Thomas Brittain said just before he wielded a 19th century saber to carry out the museum’s ceremonial ribbon cutting Tuesday.
The opening will be a welcome change for schools that have wanted to schedule tours and for researchers who can visit the museum’s archives again. Those groups can make appointments to drop any day of the week. It is open to the general public on Thursdays.
Lewis-McChord leaders aim to open the museum’s full range of exhibits over the next year, but they acknowledged funds are tight and the work might take longer than they’d like. The renovation was funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as federal stimulus funding. It was supposed to be complete last spring.
“The building is great,” Brittain said. “Now it’s about starting up the displays.”
The museum is in a three-story, 150-room inn built in 1919 by the Salvation Army at a cost of $107,000 for soldiers and their families. The Army took control of it for $1 in 1921 and continued using it to house soldiers until 1972.
It became a military museum in 1973, and its recent renovations will restore some of its usefulness to the active-duty Army.
The top floor, once neglected and worn down, now features high-tech training classrooms. Language classes for deploying soldiers are taking place there.
“We’re again seated here today to re-inaugurate the building as a state-of-the-art facility,” museum director Myles Grant told guests at the opening ceremony.
He noted the Red Shield Inn’s legacy as a top-notch hotel for its era.
Visitors can peruse a lobby full of memorabilia from the inn’s World War I origins, a gift shop and the exhibit showing the state’s early military history. They also can inspect a pool of historic tanks, missiles, Jeeps and cannons.
Still to come are displays on military families, valor and Lewis-McChord’s I Corps.
Grant said severe deterioration in the flooring and the unexpected presence of asbestos led to some of the delays.
“The challenge with any renovation of such a historic building is we encountered situations we did not expect,” he said.