If you’ve always wanted to check out the huge metal head and sword of Saddam Hussein brought back from Iraq, dioramas of famous battles, the jeep Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf drove when he was Fort Lewis’ top officer or any of the other thousands of relics on display at the Fort Lewis Military Museum, you’re going to have to wait a while.
The museum closed last week for a $9.6 million renovation project that should last until spring 2011. Officials say the upgrades – mostly structural repairs to the 90-year-old building – should ensure that the museum remains a link between Western Washington and its rich military history.
“It’s an exciting time at the museum,” director Myles Grant said. “We have a real opportunity to serve both the military and the public much better when we open again.”
The museum may be the most visible face of Fort Lewis for the thousands of Interstate 5 motorists driving past the post. Unlike the rest of the installation, it’s open to the public, and had about 18,000 visitors last year.
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During the closure, the building will be brought up to seismic and Americans with Disabilities Act codes. Workers will install new wiring, as well as alarm, fire and air conditioning systems. The windows will be removed, refurbished and reinstalled. The roof will be replaced, and the building’s derelict third floor will be transformed into classrooms.
The flagpole area and vehicle displays outside the museum also will receive repairs.
Fort Lewis received federal stimulus funding for the upgrades through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The museum’s staff of three civilians and three soldiers has plenty of work ahead of the renovations. They will photograph each of the museum’s 6,000 artifacts as they’re packed in acid-free polyethylene foam and stored in a climate-controlled vault at an off-site warehouse. They will also sort and bag more than 7,000 cubic feet of books and other archives – a wide array of material, including videotapes, posters, maps, newspapers, slides, programs and negatives.
“They’ll be knocking out walls while we’re still packing,” Grant said.
But not all of the museum’s artifacts will move. The tanks, rockets and other military hardware parked outside will remain near the museum during its closure. Crews might work around some of the larger exhibits inside, Grant said.
And museum officials plan to continue collecting materials for display during the closure. Its artifacts date back to the founding of Camp Lewis in 1917 and include exhibits on every conflict from World War I on. Museum officials hope the return next year of I Corps and three Stryker brigades from their combat deployments will bolster the museum’s collection of Iraq- and Afghanistan-related holdings.
The distinctive Western stick-style building first opened in 1919 as the Red Shield Inn, named such because The Salvation Army operated the 150-room hotel for newly arrived service members and their families. Activity at Camp Lewis dwindled in the years following World War I, and The Salvation Army sold the building to the Army Quartermaster Corps for $1 in 1921.
The building – by then called the Camp Lewis Inn – continued to house visitors, service members on temporary duty and military families in transit. As the post expanded, the building was saved from demolition several times. The Army, citing fire and safety concerns, condemned the building in 1972.
Fort Lewis officials then removed many of the walls of the first floor to move in displays, and they reopened the building as a museum in July 1973.
It has undergone several expansions and changes in recent decades, but the current closure is considered the largest renovation to the building since it opened. And the staff will continue other responsibilities related to operating the museum, such as answering historical questions from the public and setting up displays around Fort Lewis.
“We’re going to be busy,” Grant said. “We’ve got plenty on our to-do list.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758