By Outer Banks Voice on August 8, 2018
After 18 months of work, the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center is back to its original look and will feature an array of new exhibits.
Plans are to reopen on Saturday, Sept. 29, according to the National Park Service, which operates the memorial in Kill Devil Hills.
The $5.8 million rehabilitation project, led by Group III Management from Kinston, started in the winter of 2016. The work has brought the building back to the way it appeared when it opened in 1960 — orange trim, concrete and all.
At one point, plans were to tear down what was considered an outdated eyesore. But the center is not only a National Historic Landmark; it is also considered a stellar example of the National Park Service’s “Mission 66” architecture.
The center lost its retro glamour over the years, thanks to questionable “improvements” and a persistently leaking roof.
While the visitor center has been under renovation, staffers have been busy managing a separate project to design, fabricate and install all new interactive exhibits.
The fully accessible exhibits provide a look at Wilbur and Orville Wright, along with their inspirations and setbacks in achieving flight. They highlight why the brothers chose Big Kill Devil Hill for their flight experiments from 1900-1903 and what life was like for the brothers during their time in the Outer Banks.
Also featured are the people who helped the Wrights, such as their sister Katharine Wright, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Octave Chanute, Bill and Addie Tate, and Charles Taylor.
A 16-screen video wall features images of Wilbur and Orville, Wright flying machines, inspirational quotes, images of flight and select scenes of flight.
The $1.5 million exhibit project was awarded to Formations Inc. of Portland, Ore.
When the center reopens, visitors will once again be able to see a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer. During the renovation, the reproduction spent most of its time at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.
Work on the building included replacing the heating and air units, the electrical and plumbing systems and the roof. Windows were returned to the clearer glass and longer frames of the original structure. Walkways, handrails, floor coverings and restrooms have been replaced.
Though retro in design, all of the upgrades were done to the highest level of “green” LEED-certification possible.
Restoration of the 1960 building has been a bumpy ride, especially after its designation in Jan. 2001 as a National Historic Landmark. As one of the first Mission 66 visitor centers in the park service, the Wright Brothers’ center was recognized for being an important example of the Philadelphia School of modern architecture.
Mission 66 was a 10-year, mid-century program that changed the agency’s focus to the visitor experience and interpretation rather than commemoration. The ambitious national effort was initiated at Wright Brothers. Before the 50th anniversary of the first flight, 111 acres were added to the Wright park.
Notable architectural features of the original building, designed by architectural firm Mitchell/Giurgola, included a patterned concrete exterior wall, tidewater red cypress interior wall panels, a dome-like structure over the assembly area, a thin concrete shell roof and an open lobby space that flowed into the large flight room. All of the elements were meant to suggest free-flowing form, and the building’s design was met with national accolades.
“In theory and practice, the Wright Brothers Visitor Center was a balance between aesthetics and function,” said a park service history of the center.
By the mid-1990s, the modernist visitor center was defaced and tired-looking. The concrete wall, once lauded as public art, had been painted white. Metal sheets covered some cypress panels. Plywood filled in cypress boards on the entrance terrace. Open vistas were blocked by walls and furniture.
For about two years before the center was designated historic in 2001, the First Flight Centennial Foundation was planning to replace the by-then chronically leaking and patched-up building with a beautiful new $17 million center. The ad hoc state panel, created to plan the 100th anniversary of the Wright’s flight, was fund-raising with the goal of razing and replacing the old center.
The foundation had spent $250,000 of state funds on architectural plans for the new building, apparently unaware that the park service was at the same time seeking the historic landmark status, which would forbid its demolition.
After learning of the designation, foundation members angrily accused the park service of ambushing their efforts, a charge the agency denied. A follow-up $8 million plan to repair and expand the existing center was dropped because of lack of time before the 2003 celebration.
It took numerous attempts by different superintendents since then before the funds were finally found for the restoration, helped no doubt by attention on the 100th anniversary of the park service.
More than 500,000 people visit the 9,600-square-foot center every year. In 2015, park interpreters regaled 115,000 of those visitors about the Wrights during one of 1,341 flight room talks.