On a recent Monday, with temperatures hovering in the mid-90s, construction is steady and unabated at the historic Leigh Street Armory — the future home of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.
A small forklift pulls cinder blocks from the back of a truck. Painters inside the building wave for a picture. Construction workers consult plans atop a skeletal structure off St. Peter Street. And a project supervisor, whose enthusiasm matches the heat, walks over to an onlooker and waxes unprompted about the project and the building’s future.
Some of the construction workers are part of a training program in masonry and electrical work, he reports. Original windows and chalkboards from 1895 are being kept intact. There’s a cafe being built on the back of the old building.
The excitement on the site is palpable. And the sentiment is echoed by members of the museum’s board.
“Before we got started, the building was complete mess. It had suffered a fire, parts had collapsed. The city had to re-stabilize the roof,” says board member Stacy L. Burrs, who is overseeing construction. “Putting that building back together was almost more important than putting a museum inside.”
While renovations at the armory hum along, the museum and its board are preparing to enter a new phase as an organization inside the new space.
“It’s really like a startup,” says Monroe Harris, an oral surgeon overseeing the campaign for the board. “From a small facility and small budget to a new, expanded facility and larger budget — and more opportunities for community engagement.”
The old space on Clay Street, an 1832 Greek revival house with its own history, has less than 6,000 square feet for exhibits, archives and offices.
The armory will have 12,000.
And not a square foot to spare. With added community spaces and interactive, digital storytelling experiences, even the turrets will have small exhibits dedicated to young patrons. The organization has tasked itself with telling a statewide story of blacks in Virginia from 1619 on.
“One of the most important things we’ll do in the course of the [museum’s] journey is tell the tragedy and triumph of African-American history,” Burrs says. “We’ll cover a Hampton Roads story, a Danville story, Richmond stories. It will play out over a number of years. We won’t just throw everything into the opening.”
Burrs left his job as Black History Museum chief executive after less than two years for a job at Venture Richmond in January. But he returned to the board as the chairman of its design and construction committee to oversee the project.
He says the new space will bring new opportunities and challenges alike. “When we decided to go forward with the project,” he says, “the operating budget was around $200,000. Once we’re fully staffed at the new space, we’re going to require a lot more than that.”
And Burrs knows it’s more difficult to raise operating funds for a new space than an exciting renovation project. That’s why $1.5 million of the campaign will give a “runway into first couple years of operation.”
The $13 million campaign, which also allocates $8.5 for capital costs and $2.5 million for an endowment, will begin focusing on smaller public donations this summer.
Burrs declines to say exactly how much of that figure has been raised but that it’s “about halfway to where we need to be.” Harris adds that the board would like to raise another $2.5 million before the grand opening at the end of the year.
So far the sources of funding include $2.4 million in private philanthropic money, federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits, state grant funds, and loans from the city, including one for $2.3 million guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The larger space also means the museum has a chance to expand its programming with live music, community events and educational activities. Harris says the museum is working with the Richmond Jazz Society to reinstitute the jazz series at the Clay Street space. Additionally, he says that venue rentals, ticketed programming and admissions will be a valuable source of income for the nonprofit.
To receive historic tax credits, the Black History Museum created for-profit subsidiaries to lease the armory from the city. But Harris emphasizes that the new space will be “strictly a not-for-profit organization with in-house hiring.”
As for the older space on Clay Street, which the museum owns outright, Burrs says it hasn’t quite decided what to do with it yet.
“We’ve had lots of offers,” he says, “but we probably won’t just sell it off. It will be something good and positive for the Black History Museum and the community.”
In the next few weeks, Marilyn West, the chairwoman of the museum’s board of trustees, says she plans to announce four new board members and a major leadership decision.
To Burrs, the most compelling stories the museum will tell are those “that demonstrate cooperation between the races, as it relates to enslavement, the treatment of indentured servants, the Underground Railroad, and fighting for freedom.”
The armory itself is a symbol of that, built collaboratively by a civil rights activist and a former Confederate officer. “We restored one of city’s most important buildings,” he says. S