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Barnum Museum Begins Long Journey Back From Tornado's Wrath



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By John Voket

BRIDGEPORT — Following historic renovations to sites including the Statue of Liberty and the US Capital dome in Washington, D.C., Swanke Hayden Connell Architects has been awarded the contract to help restore Bridgeport’s Barnum Museum, which suffered significant damage during a tornado that struck the Park City on June 24, 2010.

During a press conference and exclusive tour of parts of the damaged facility on February 25, Executive Director and Curator Kathy Maher said the cost to repair the damage specifically related to the tornado is currently estimated at $6 or $7 million.Â

But since those repairs require relocating and moving the museum’s entire collection of artifacts, The Barnum Museum Foundation has determined it would be in the best long term interest to fix other parts of the building and do a complete overhaul of the exhibition space, which is expected to be a $15 to $17 million project taking more than two years to complete.

The original museum building, designed by the architectural firm of Longstaff and Hurd was constructed in the 1890s and is owned by the City of Bridgeport and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

“The building itself is a work of art,” Ms Maher said, “and therefore the collection inside is just part of the overall restoration process. The two are connected and must be revitalized simultaneously.”

Ms Maher said she, her staff, and a legion of volunteers have been donning hard hats and protective gloves for months.

“But much more work needs to be done so that the public will once again have access to this magnificent museum show casing the treasures related to the life and times of P.T. Barnum and greater Bridgeport,” said Maher.

 Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, who told The Bee that he has memories of visiting the Barnum Museum as a child, said the popular family destination is “one of the city’s most famous landmarks, as well as home to an important collection of artifacts of one our most famous residents.”

He was referring to Pa-Ib, a 4,000-year-old female mummy that has been on display at the museum since it was brought there from Upper Egypt in the 1890s.

“We want to see the building restored and will assist as much as possible in getting the doors open again so Kathy and her staff can return to their museum home,” Mayor Finch added.

Representing the firm of Swanke Hayden Connell Architects based out of New York City will be Richard S. Hayden, FAIA, RIBA Consulting Principal Chairman and Elizabeth Moss LEED AP, Project Director, Architect Conservator and Senior Associate.

Richard Hayden described his commission for the restoration and repair of the Barnum Museum as “fulfilling on both a personal and professional level.”

“As a long-time homeowner in Fairfield and as Chairman of Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, I can fully appreciate the commitment that a community and its local government must make to celebrate its history while providing a source of learning and entertainment for its future,” he said. “Bridgeport is a wonderful city with a rich history and a plethora of historically magnificent structures. We are proud to be part of the renewal of one of these gems.”

To date, The Barnum Museum Foundation has raised more than $250,000 to be used specifically for the restoration of the collection and the operations of the museum. Major funders represented at the press conference included The City of Bridgeport, The Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, Fairfield County Community Foundation, People’s United Community Foundation, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, and benefactor Elizabeth M. Pfriem.

The Barnum Museum has been completely closed to the public since January 2, 2011, in order to assess damage, begin the preservation of the collection and repair the building structure following the  tornado damage suffered last June.

“It was so touching that we had a mother show up with her young daughter and a bag full of coins and dollar bills a few days after the storm,” Ms Maher said. “When she heard about the damage from the tornado, she emptied her piggy bank and insisted her mother bring her down to give it to us for the recovery project. That’s the kind of outpouring we’ve been experiencing.

“But we’ve got a long, long way to go.”

As Ms Maher walked from room to room in the lower level of the museum, tiny shards of glass and splinters of wood crackled underfoot.

“Look, here we are almost in March and there’s still glass and bits of debris everywhere,” said the director and curator, who said she had been working in the area that sustained the greatest damage just an hour before the storm hit.

As she stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the ornate brownstone building on Main Street, Ms Maher also pointed to some white flecks amid the bricks.

 “The restaurant down the block had a bunch of plastic patio furniture outside when the storm hit, and the force of the wind smashed the plastic chairs into the building so hard that we think the pieces will be permanently embedded in the brick,” she said.

Ms Maher said anyone interested in keeping tabs on the renovations, or who may want to make a donation to the cause can check their website, www.barnum-museum.org, or call 203-331-1104.

See video coverage from the Barnum Museum at www.NewtownBee.com.

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