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SAFEKEEPING Historic deposits are now being made in a longtime downtown bank building as new McKann Center opens WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE THIS? ESSENTIALS FOR VISITORS
Museum's new wing--in an 81-year-old building--tells more stories of region's heritage, in new and provocative ways

 The bank building, shown on an old postcard, is a downtown landmark.
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Date published: 12/6/2008

By CLINT SCHEMMER

AT LAST, the bank clock is back in place.

Lobby centerpiece of downtown Fredericksburg's grandest bank building, the big timepiece had counted the hours since before the Great Depression. It took a break in January 2004, when the Fredericksburg Area Museum began converting its home into exhibit galleries.

Now it's back on the job, watching over the museum's brand-new Catherine W. Jones McKann Center, which opens to the public today.

When you step into the center's main gallery, its clock (set in Aquia sandstone above the bank-vault door), mahogany paneling, high windows, ceiling cornice and a gilded chandelier all remind you that this was once the proud home of various financial institutions.

That was just the idea, said Edwin Watson, the regional museum's president and CEO.

"Shortly before the Great Depression, they built this impressive bank building out of a sense of community pride," he said. "We wanted to do whatever we could to preserve it for future generations, and we also think it makes a good museum building."

Museum staff and consultants have worked hard to save the downtown landmark's historic fabric, and meld it with a 19th-century retail building next door, while adapting them for very demanding modern uses.

Achieving those ends has taken five years, $12 million, much thought and a lot of hard work by dozens of people--many behind the scenes.

"We wanted to do it right, and I think we did," Watson said.

Construction began in July 2006, and was completed this fall. For the past six-plus weeks, curators and exhibit designers have been working feverishly to install the displays and their many artifacts.

20 YEARS OF PROGRESS

Today's opening of the McKann Center greatly expands the museum, which began life 20 years ago in Fredericksburg's former Town Hall at 907 Princess Anne St.--another handsome building with a unique history. (The Federal-era building is the second-oldest continuously used town hall in America.)

The need for more space to properly exhibit and store the museum's growing collection--now numbering more than 7,500 items--is what drove creation of the new facility, which stands at the corner of William and Princess Anne streets (across the street from the original museum).


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The Fredericksburg Area museum and Cultural Center is already planning the McKann Center's first special programs for next year. In association with the museum's new exhibit at Town Hall, "Fredericksburg: Then and Now," the center will host evening lectures by two experts on the region's past.

On March 23, the center's Mansard Gallery will host Dr. Kerri Barile, president of Dovetail Cultural Resources Management. The archaeologist, who has investigated many historic properties--perhaps most notably Colonial Gov. Alexander Spotswood's home at Germanna--will speak on "What and Why Do We Preserve?"

On April 20, also in the Mansard Gallery, Sean Maroney, executive director of Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc., will speak on "Changing Streetscapes."

The museum is a regular participant in downtown's popular First Friday program, holding free public concerts in Market Square, and also hosts family-friendly Faire in the Square programs there.

To properly enjoy what the museum's two buildings have to offer, staff members recommend allotting at least two hours. Get oriented with the Gallery Guide.

To supplement self-guided visits, the museum offers a narrated cell phone tour. (Visitors use their own cell phones.)

Purchase your admission at Visitor Reception just inside the McKann Center's front door, at 1001 Princess Anne St.

December through February, the museum (both buildings) is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1-4 p.m. on Sunday.

Restrooms are found on the ground floors of both buildings. Admission: adults, $7; students (with ID), $2; children (6 and under), free. Discounts to active members of AAA, AARP and the armed forces (with proper ID). Students with discounts, $1. Museum members receive free admission.

Both buildings are wheelchair-accessible. Enter through the rose garden at Town Hall, and Princess Anne Street at the Catherine W. Jones McKann Center.

For visitors with disabilities, parking is available at the Fredericksburg Baptist Church lot in the 1000 block of Princess Anne Street.

Questions? Call the museum at 540/371-3037, visit famcc.org or e-mail msaffos@famcc.org.

McKANN CENTER MAIN GALLERIES: Fredericksburg at War: Learn about what area residents went through during America's wars--from the Revolution and Civil War through World War II. Portal, Passage, Power: An American River Town: Learn about the Rappahannock River, its importance to Algonquian-speaking peoples who lived in the area before Europeans arrived, and its role in commerce, transport, water power and entertainment from the Colonial period to today. Railways and Roadways: See how transportation methods have evolved, along with the area's railroads, roads and highways. Our Community: See life here from different vantage points. Explore black residents' experiences during the civil-rights era, the role that Fredericksburg women played in the suffrage movement and historic preservation, and other perspectives on our community. Not So Current Currency: Step into the bank vault for a look at three centuries of money used in the region, including Continental notes, Confederate currency, local bank notes, and gold and silver coins.

AT TOWN HALL: British Heritage, American Style: Decorative Arts of the Rappahannock River Region, 1730-1860: View works created by talented artists and artisans of the region, interpreted through groundbreaking research by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. George Washington and the Masonic Tradition: Objects associated with Washington, the nation's first president, illustrate his early link to Masonic traditions here. Market House Gallery: Now hosting "Fredericksburg: Then and Now," a survey of area buildings and historic sites as seen through period and modern photographs.

OPENING WEEKEND

The Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center will offer music, song, dancing, historical talks, downtown tours and children's activities to mark this weekend's grand opening of its new wing, the Catherine W. Jones McKann Center. The center and the museum's Town Hall/Market House building will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free both days.

IN MARKET SQUARE Saturday, Dec. 6 10 a.m.: (behind Town Hall at William and Princess Anne streets), opening ceremony and ribbon cutting for Catherine W. Jones McKann Center Ongoing: Scott Walker and Mike Frye of Hallowed Ground Tours will guide half-hour, five-block walking tours on downtown's history and architecture.

Civil War re-enactors from the 47th Virginia Infantry, Company I, will camp in the historic square and interact with visitors.

AT McKANN CENTER 10:30 a.m.: John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, speaks on "I Was Born a Slave: The World and Words of John Washington." John Washington, a Fredericksburg slave who escaped to freedom during the Civil War, penned a rare, recently published memoir. 11:30 a.m.: Stafford resident Jim Thomas, director of the American Red Cross Chorus, performs "Songs From the Field: Slave Spirituals." 1:30 p.m.: Chris Sacash, a retired Navy officer who has worked with Stafford historian D.P. Newton at his White Oak Museum, will discuss "The Experience of a Civil War Soldier" in the Battle of Fredericksburg. 2:30 p.m.: John Hennessy, "World War II at Home: Fredericksburg on the Homefront" 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Learning Center: "Make-and-take" crafts for children--wooden boats, coiled clay pots, Mancala, Virginia Indian games, counted cross-stitch

AT TOWN HALL 11 a.m.: Colonial Heritage Society dancers Noon: Carson Hudson of Historical Diversions, a historian, re-enactor and musician who has performed for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, will present "Whoop and Holler: The Changing Sound and Perception of the Banjo." 2 p.m.: Colonial dancers 3 p.m.: Carson Hudson, on the banjo Sunday, Dec. 7

AT MARKET SQUARE

Ongoing: Guided, half-hour walking tours of downtown

AT McKANN CENTER

History "make-and-take" crafts for children in the Learning Center

WHY DOES THE CENTER LOOK LIKE THIS?

Handsome bank buildings are a staple of small cities across America.

Few, though, can match the architectural peculiarities and elegance of Fredericksburg's former Planters National Bank, now home to the regional museum's new wing.

Instead of settling for a plain-vanilla bank facade, in the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Planters' architects looked to America's mother country for inspiration.

The architects were Frank C. Baldwin of Spotsylvania County, nationally known for his Detroit buildings and one of the bank's founders, and Philip N. Stern of Fredericksburg, a Maine native who designed the Princess Anne Hotel and Lafayette Elementary School (now the headquarters of Central Rappahannock Regional Library).

They chose to emulate the style of Sir Christopher Wren, the great British architect famed for designing St. Paul's Cathedral in London. (In Virginia, Wren is probably best known for the building that bears his name at The College of William & Mary--the oldest academic structure still in use in America, though its historic connection to Wren is hotly debated.)

As royal architect for 45 years, Wren was nothing if not prolific. He designed 52 London churches, the graceful library of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the garden facade of Hampton Court Palace, among many works.

Wren's style caught on, influencing other architects and builders. Which is probably how England's oldest boys school, established in 1382, wound up with a landmark that looks like one of his.

The Planters Bank architects, in turn, chose this structure as the model for their new edifice, which was to replace Planters' offices in the Bradford Building across William Street (now site of the museum's rose garden.)

"This former bank building is almost identical in style to a building known simply as 'School' at Winchester College in England, which was also inspired by Wren's work," museum president and CEO Edwin Watson said.

Winchester's brick building, built between 1683 and 1687, still houses its original 'thrones' for Masters and benches for pupils. The walls are hung with 15th-century Flemish tapestries and portraits of past headmasters.

The School and the bank bear a striking resemblance to each other, sharing the same arched windows, roof cornice, stone window surrounds, decorative moldings and choice of materials.

Longtime city resident Phoebe Willis recalled that Planters National, which opened for business on Sept. 6, 1927, was a "poor bank but a lovely building," Watson said.

And so Old Town Fredericksburg came to have a stately cornerstone, with a unique history to be appreciated afresh by its latest visitors.

--Clint Schemmer