New exhibit rooms fortify historic park's attractions

Work: Soldiers' quarters and barracks take Fort McHenry visitors back to 1812, while new projection equipment brings film up to date.

June 24, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Fort McHenry has completed $375,000 in renovations that have turned several rooms into exhibits and improved the experience of visitors who watch the fort's movie about the British bombardment that inspired the national anthem.

Once empty rooms -- a commanding officer's quarters, guardhouse and barracks -- now have dusty wood floors, painted walls adorned with photographs, benches, barrels and bunks. In addition, the auditorium has a new overhead film projector and DVD stereo system.

"It looks like something out of `Star Wars,' " Chief Ranger Vince Vaise said of the auditorium work.

On Tuesday, many of the new exhibits were on display. The public is invited to a celebration at 6: 30 p.m. today at the fort to showcase the renovations. Admission is free.

The Locust Point national monument commemorates the War of 1812 and the birth of the national anthem. It is the first National Park Service property to pay for repairs through a Fee Demonstration Program.

Under the program, $4 of every $5 admission fee goes back into work at the park.

"Visitors can actually see where their fees go," said Kathryn Cook, park superintendent.

Besides the new exhibits and movie equipment, a separate $5 million renovation, which is being paid for through several congressional appropriations, will replace decayed bricks along the battery wall, install drainage lines and replace the compounds' tin roofs.

Begun in 1994, the work will be finished in November. It will be the first major structural overhaul since 1929.

U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who helped get the federal grants for the overhaul, said he believes the renovations and the Fee Demonstration Program will rejuvenate the military compound where U.S. troops repulsed a British naval attack in 1814.

"The [fee program] has provided the funds to help feed the restoration efforts at Fort McHenry," Sarbanes said.

Sarbanes and National Park Service Director Robert Stanton are scheduled to attend the celebration tonight, which will include drum rolls, soldiers in 19th-century fatigues and a park volunteer who will slice the opening ribbon with a sword.

Although weekend volunteers will continue re-enactments, four life-sized cutouts of soldiers, including for the first time an African-American, are stationed in the Commanders' Quarters.

"This was just empty, white-washed rooms," said Cook, pointing to sea-foam green walls and the cutout of Capt. George Armistead. "People could walk through but it was pretty dead space."

The renovated 70-seat auditorium is what impresses park officials the most.

The equipment replaces an aging 16 mm film projector.

In recent years, the auditorium's 20-minute movie on the War of 1812, which ends with a Naval Academy choir singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a retractable wall opens revealing an oversized American flag, has become a park favorite.

"Before visitors would maybe walk out with a little tear in their eye. Now, they will be sobbing," Cook said.

Besides the exhibits and movie equipment, the one-mile sea wall trail and parking lot were repaved in the fall with fee money.

The park has $90,000 of fee money for renovations, and will continue to keep 80 percent of admission fees with the hope of creating additional exhibits by this fall.

Before the Fee Demonstration Program, parks under the Interior Department's jurisdiction would have to battle for limited resources, leaving many parks in disrepair.

Now, all parks get a budget to fulfill day-to-day operations, but can also rely on fee money.

"We only have to figure out internal priorities," Cook said.

Other national parks are also keeping park fees, but Fort McHenry was the first to complete a renovation project, Vaise said.

After approval of the Fee Demonstration Program, in 1996, Fort McHenry quickly bumped the admission fee from $2 to $5. Cook feared public anger and lower attendance.

But Tuesday, hundreds of visitors -- from a contingent of Mennonite, home-schooled children on a church field trip to a middle-aged couple who took a side trip from Interstate 95 as they traveled to Philadelphia -- trudged beneath the low ceilings of some quarters and looked at panoramic harbor views.

"This is great. This is part of our tradition and part of the birth of our nation," said Mike Kormanski of Los Angeles. "With all the waste in government, it is fantastic they can catch and preserve this."

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