Miami Military Museum and Veterans Memorial on the march
By Cara Boruch-Dolan
Development of the Miami Military Museum and Veteran Memorial is more than halfway done, says Richard Heisenbottle, architect for the renovation. The building, he said, has been moved and secured to its foundation neighboring the Gold Coast Railroad Museum.
"We have several things we're looking towards to raise money," said Anthony Atwood, executive director of the Friends of the Military Museum of South Florida. "Sometimes these things are driven by the [financial] calendar."
Being a military reserve officer for 25 years as well as a history professor at Florida International University, Mr. Atwood took it upon himself to spearhead the museum efforts.
He said county financing from a $2 million voter-allocated fund as well as $118,000 from the federal government is about to run out; the remaining $75,000 is to go toward having the foundation approved for code requirements.
"Once funding is received we believe we could finish the museum in a year and a half, and that's including establishing museum exhibitry," said Mr. Heisenbottle of the building that has been under renovation since 2008.
Mr. Atwood said he's been in talks with some county officials for added funding and he's confident negotiations will resume after the fiscal year begins in October.
Mr. Atwood said the 12,000-square-foot museum at 12450 SW 152nd St. is geared to draw attention from visitors to Zoo Miami, about a mile away.
"Florida has one of the largest numbers of veterans and retirees in the country," said Mr. Atwood on how the museum proves viable in such a historically significant area.
In 1942, the Richmond Naval Air Base was constructed as a result of Nazi U-boat attacks along the Florida coast sinking more than 40 Allied merchant marine ships, Mr. Atwood said. The use of blimps made it more difficult for the U-boats to remain undetected.
The two-story wooden museum was originally the headquarters to NAS Richmond, the largest blimp base in the world. Twenty-five blimps were housed in three Douglas fir hangers that stood 157 feet high and 1,080 feet wide, totaling 7 acres each.
"They were the largest wooden structures ever built," said Mr. Atwood of the hangers that burned in a 1945 fire. The museum is the only building surviving from the station.
After production ended in 1945, the building was still used for a multitude of federal purposes, said Mr. Atwood. In the '60s it became the CIA headquarters for JIMWAVE, a covert operation against Fidel Castro during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he said.
In 1971, the building was occupied by the Army Reserve, said Mr. Atwood, before being taken over by the Marine Reserve Corps in 1982.
It's because of its cultural history that the Miami Military Museum was named a historic landmark on June 16, said Mr. Heisenbottle, president of RJ Heisenbottle Architects. Titled "Building 25" by Miami-Dade's Historic Preservation Board, it was certified a landmark officially after it was moved off of federal land.
Kevin Asher, supervisor of special projects for the county Parks and Recreation Department, said the county intends to incorporate the museum within the railroad museum property to focus on the military activities that were consequential to NAS Richmond.
"We want the museum to tell the very interesting story the base played in our US history," said Mr. Asher.
He said Zoo Miami is still planning its own expansion, which the museum will also be able to benefit from.
The building relocation to Gold Coast land only took a few days in March, said Mr. Atwood, but the laying and securing of the building to the foundation has taken three months and it still waits approval.
Mr. Heisenbottle said that besides the "herculean" move to the new location, the building required extensive renovation.
After being ravaged by hurricanes Andrew and Wilma and prolonged exposure of the elements, Mr. Heisenbottle said structural repairs and reinforcements to get the building up to today's standards were especially arduous.
Since the building was built in the 1940s, the structure also contained a large quantity of asbestos that had to be removed, he said. Mr. Heisenbottle, who contributed to historic renovations at the Vizcaya Museums and Gardens as well as the Freedom Tower, said the colonial revival building is a unique architectural attraction to South Florida.
"We hope that we will be able to give building 25 a new mission as the military museum of South Florida," he said, "where it will serve both an educational mission so that all that come after us can learn from the past and, by doing so, build a better future."
He said schematic plans for the museum's interior are done and that both floors will house plenty of exhibit space.
"I've got a living room full of stuff and we haven't even put out the word yet," Mr. Atwood said of the excess of artifacts and memorabilia he's already obtained. "I doubt there will be a shortage of materials to show."
Mr. Heisenbottle said that while the museum already tells a story, that story is only half written.
"We look forward to the completion of the building and having building 25 serving the community once again."