After decades of making do with a small, outdated visitor center, the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine is getting new space and an update for the 21st century, just in time for the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
The National Park Service's old center built in 1964 accommodated 250,000 visitors annually. It was soon overwhelmed and attendance grew to 650,000 in recent years, with about 30 percent of the groups that seek reservations being turned away, Superintendent Gay Vietzke said.
The new $15 million, 17,000-square-foot center is expected to welcome 750,000 people annually and will likely see an attendance bubble in the years surrounding the bicentennial. Thursday's opening of the center falls on the 80th anniversary of the "Star-Spangled Banner" becoming the national anthem. The anthem made the fort on Baltimore's harbor one of the best-known sites associated with the war.
"If you know something about the War of 1812, you know that Francis Scott Key wrote the 'Star-Spangled Banner' here," Vietzke said.
The building designed by Baltimore-based GWWO/Architects has two curved walls _ one of brick, the other of zinc _ to symbolize the flag's stripes. It is near to a water-taxi dock and can accommodate more buses than the old facility. Inside, a new exhibit area is more than three times larger the former space and includes three galleries where visitors can learn about the war, the Battle of Baltimore and the anthem.
Vietzke said the Park Service heard loud and clear from visitors that they cherished the powerful "reveal" moment at the end of the old film when the screen lifted to show the fort with the flag waving above. They decided to keep that feature with the new film.
"Even I felt the emotion in the old place," when the fort was revealed, said William Haley, who _ like the company that designed the exhibit, Haley Sharp Design _ is British.
The screen is incorporated into the exhibit space with a statue of Key in the middle which makes for a unique experience for viewers, said Joshua Colover, president of Aperture Films and director of the new film that tells the story of the Battle of Baltimore and the anthem's inception.
He wanted visitors to feel like they were amid the soldiers defending the fort and with Key at the moment of his inspiration.
"With the giant screen, you're not just watching the film, but you're experiencing it," he said. "For the younger generation, we wanted to make it a real visceral experience."
Visitors can review the anthem's four stanzas and use touchscreens to pick out phrases to learn more about what they meant in Key's time. At other touchscreen stations around the exhibit space, visitors can learn about Key's life or the debate leading up to the war.
For the next three months, they can view the original manuscript of the "Star-Spangled Banner" in Key's handwriting, complete with his corrections, on loan from the Maryland Historical Society.
A timeline focused on the relevance of the anthem over the last two centuries allows visitors to listen to different versions of the song, including Jimi Hendrix' famous interpretation on electric guitar. It aims to put the anthem in context.
"It's really important to know the basis of our national identity can be traced back to these symbols created here," Vietzke said.
Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine: http://www.nps.gov/fomc