120-year-old building’s makeover delayed

Work on the historic Leigh Street Armory is expected to start this spring. (Photo by Brandy Brubaker)

Work on the historic Leigh Street Armory is expected to start this spring. (Photo by Brandy Brubaker)

Work on a local museum’s new dream home in Jackson Ward has been delayed.

Originally slated to kick off construction in October, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia now expects renovations at the historic Leigh Street Armory to begin in the spring.

Chief executive Stacy Burrs said the project has been pushed back because it is taking longer than expected to work out all of the design elements.

The organization is working with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to renovate the 24,000-square-foot space.

“It’s a delicate process on a really delicate project, and we don’t want to rush into anything,” Burrs said.

Stacy Burrs

Stacy Burrs

Burrs said fundraising for the new museum is “coming along great” but would not provide figures for what’s been raised so far. The museum hopes to raise $13 million, which will cover the $8 million renovation project, an endowment and operation costs.

The new building will be partially funded by a $600,000 Industrial Revitalization Fund grant from the state that the City of Richmond was required to match. The museum will also pursue historic tax credits for the renovation of the castle-like structure.

Corporate donations will also help foot the bill, including a $500,000 pledge secured from Dominion and grants of $300,000 each from the Cabell and Parsons foundations.

Burrs said the organization is close to choosing an exhibition designer. The building is being developed by the M Companies, which will also serve as construction manager, and bids are being accepted for trade contractors.

The eight-to-10-month construction project is expected to wrap up in the first half of 2015, in time for the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery.

“It’s the 150th anniversary of the 13th amendment to the constitution,” Burrs said. “It’s important for us to get open in 2015.”

Burrs said it would take a significant amount of work to turn the armory into a museum space. In addition to a good cleaning, there’s brickwork and painting to be done. A mechanical system and elevators need to be installed. And they are expanding the building by several thousand square feet and making it ADA compliant.

But Burrs said the armory space will provide a better presence for the 33-year-old museum and will lend its own element of history.

“It’s the only armory ever built in the country for an African American militia,” Burrs said. “The kind of interracial collaboration it took to build it in 1895 was significant. … It’s just got a remarkable history.”

A rendering of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center, which is slated to open in 2015. (Courtesy of the Black History Museum)

A rendering of the planned Black History Museum and Cultural Center. (Courtesy of the BHM)

The armory was home to the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Infantry, Richmond’s first African American regiment, according to the National Park Service. The structure was later used as a school, as temporary housing and a recreation hall for African American troops during World War II, and, finally, as a school again until the 1950s.

Burrs said the founders of the museum identified the armory as a dream location 30 years ago but couldn’t make it happen.

The city owns the building, but ownership will be transferred to the museum once work begins, Burrs said.

The museum has developed content for every room in the armory, but Burrs would not provide specifics.

“I’m not at liberty to talk about that,” he said. “I don’t want to ruin the excitement and fun for everybody.”

Another Clay Street museum is in the midst of a major construction project: The Valentine Richmond History Center is working on a roughly $4 million renovation that is expected to be completed this year.

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Phil Riggan
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Thank you for this story. Fundraising and plan-making are hard jobs and there is a lot riding on the success of this museum. Certainly I am rooting for a great addition to Richmond’s attractions and Jackson Ward.