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Soldiers & Sailors hall winning war on neglect

Air conditioning key part of memorial's renovation

Monday, August 13, 2001

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, known for decades as Oakland's White Elephant, is struggling to re-invent itself.

"We are a 91-year-old infant, trying to overcome years of neglect," said Joseph Dugan Jr., executive director of a magnificent, underused structure that was built to honor Union Civil War veterans and eventually became a memorial for American veterans of all modern wars.

Death mask of President Abraham Lincoln is one of the priceless pieces in the collection of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

With a $6 million infusion from the Regional Asset District board and the state, the memorial hall is undergoing major renovations that include plans to install the first air-conditioning system in the palace of a building, which has 83,000 square feet of usable space.

In all its 91 years of operation, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall has never been air-conditioned, except for a few window air conditioners in some of the offices. Getting a system that works well is a daunting task, but "it should be done by next summer," said Casey Andrea Nowicki, promotions coordinator.

Dugan hopes that air conditioning will create opportunities for more frequent rentals of the building's ballroom, private rooms and 2,378-seat auditorium.

"We have one of the most unique concert halls in the country. It is acoustically correct. The Pittsburgh Symphony recorded CDs here," said Dugan, pushing open the doors to the magnificent first-floor auditorium, which has President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address engraved in giant letters on the wall behind the stage, believed to be the largest presentation of that script in the nation.

He said local high schools use the auditorium for graduation ceremonies, but it often stands empty in the summer.

"There's almost a hundred days where it is sometimes impossible to rent it because of unbearable heat," said Dugan. He added that some groups who have rented the auditorium have tried to bring in their own fans to cool it down.

Dugan said the air conditioning also will improve conditions for the memorial hall's collections of historic artifacts, which include displays from the Civil War to present-day conflicts.

The RAD board has become the savior of Soldiers & Sailors since Dugan and a board comprising representatives of multiple veterans groups steered it out of the hands of Allegheny County government and into the world of nonprofit corporations.

"The thinking was that as a nonprofit, we would have more control over the destiny of the hall," Dugan said. "Under Allegheny County's old government, there was no funding for promotions, advertising or any extra use of the hall."

While the $6 million is earmarked for capital improvements, the RAD board also contributes to the operating budget of the hall, since it was taken out of the hands of Allegheny County 18 months ago.

Dugan said county officials provided the technical expertise and still give the hall some grant money, but the 36-member board, made up of a wide diversity of veterans, must figure out how to raise money through foundations or private donations.

"Ours is an ongoing battle for funding," Dugan said.

It's also a battle for identity.

Since privatization, the board has begun a buy-a-brick program. It has hired Bernie Lynch as a consultant and is launching more community education programs, such as a living history program in October. There are also plans for the first cotillion ball in February, commemorating Lincoln's birthday.

For years, the hall's collection of historic artifacts -- including a large Civil War collection -- had been poorly maintained. In 1997, as Soldiers & Sailors began its march toward independence, it hired its first curator, Grant Gerlich, who began cataloging and displaying military items that had been donated and sometimes stored away, without anyone weighing their significance.

"Boxes and artifacts were everywhere," Gerlich said.

When he first joined the hall, a woman came by to see her father's military artifacts from World War I, which had been donated. She had been told they were on display.

"Not only did I not know anything about the display, but I didn't know where they were," Gerlich said.

Now, he said, the hall is more selective in accepting donations and is carefully protecting and displaying its treasures.

Thus, a memorial hall that has been somewhat of an anachronism in recent years is trying to span time by jumping into the same quasi-public, quasi-private pond as the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium, the National Aviary and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

Dugan and his staff have plenty of ideas for making Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall a major part of the community, but they must find ways to make it happen.

"We need a larger professional staff, more than anything else," he said.

About 75,000 people visited Soldiers & Sailors last year, mostly for special events.

Dugan said the recent display of "The Moving Wall," a half-size replica of the Washington, D.C., Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, for six days in July brought about 10,000 new visitors to Soldiers & Sailors and likely will boost attendance records for this year. Groups from Elderhostels and AmeriCorps held programs at the hall last week.

Dugan and his staff are trying to bring more groups to the center, do more history education programs for children and adults, and find better ways to promote the fact that some of the documents stored in their vaults are extraordinary.

"We have books that were printed prior to the Civil War," said Diane Ragan, who was hired as the first full-time librarian in June and spends 98 percent of her time helping people search the military genealogy of their forefathers. She does these military genealogies by appointment only, for people who are searching their family histories.

Ragan and Ron Gancas, another staffer, are compiling a book of information from the record book of Grand Army of the Republic Post 206 that they found in the vault, which outlines the life history of 250 African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The record book is extraordinary because it is one of the few original records of African-American participation in the Civil War.

It's just one of the countless treasures stored in the memorial hall that includes among its displays President Lincoln's death mask.

Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall was put into works by an act of the state Legislature in 1905.

Henry Hornbostel designed the enormous building at 4141 Fifth Ave. as an oversized replica of the tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The cornerstone was placed on the building in 1908 and it was dedicated in 1910. The cost of construction, $1.56 million, was approved by Allegheny County taxpayers in a referendum and financed by bonds paid for with tax dollars.

Each year, its operating budget came out of Allegheny County funds, which made it a center of politics and patronage.

While Soldiers & Sailors survived, it never thrived.

There were many reasons. Early veterans groups kept limiting its use. Even in the late 1940s, political, un-American, controversial and foreign language meetings still were prohibited. In 1947, The Pittsburgh Press said the hall had about as much activity as "a deserted monastery."

Veterans groups regularly battled over issues ranging from who was in charge to who was allowed the best spittoons.

"Up until the 1980s, there was no recognition of women's contribution to any war service," said Dugan, who has corrected that omission with a display about women in the armed services.

For years, the hall was nothing more than an albatross.

Under Allegheny County control, the hall ran on an annual budget of less than $700,000 in recent years. Dugan said about 60 percent of tax money spent to run the facility was returned to the county from revenues generated by admissions, rentals and fees from the underground parking lot, which was built in 1989.

Independence day was Jan. 1, 2000. That's the day when Soldiers & Sailors left the umbrella of county government and officially became a nonprofit corporation that qualifies as a charity with 501c-3 status. The county still owns the building, but leases it for $1 a year to the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum Trust Inc.

The transition of the hall from government to nonprofit ownership has not been easy. When rentals slowed down this summer, Dugan laid off seven maintenance employees, all still working under county union contracts, to save some money.

"I plan to call them back," he said.

Though the daily operating budget is tight, the influx of $6 million in capital funds from the state and Regional Asset District is helping to get the old building back into shape after years of getting nothing more than cosmetic improvements.

Dugan said the capital funds are being used to rebuild its infrastructure -- everything from a new copper roof and electrical wiring to restoration of the official GAR colors in its entrance and elegant banquet hall. The banquet hall is familiar to moviegoers as the place where Anthony Hopkins played a caged Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" in 1990.

Nowicki said old paint colors, melon green and mustard gold, which were used when Allegheny County controlled Soldiers & Sailors, have been replaced with red, green and federal gold, the colors of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The GAR is the organization of Union Civil War veterans who set into motion the idea to build a memorial hall to honor Civil War veterans from Allegheny County. Through a special piece of state legislation, a committee of veterans was named to manage it.

Future plans for Soldiers & Sailors call for remembering it as a memorial, honoring it as a museum and celebrating it as a hall.

"In the past year, we have become a regional asset by working through the Regional Asset [District] board. Our mission now is a more educational-based mission: not to condone war, not to be anti-war, but to show the contribution of the individual from any community," Dugan said.

"There is hardly a community you can touch here that didn't have a veteran who made some sacrifices," he said.



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