Prince William News

A Future Filled With More of the Past

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fifty years ago, Fisher and Son Hardware in Old Town Manassas provided more than just hammers and nails to residents.

But because of a lack of space at the Manassas Museum, the story of the hardware store -- and musical gathering spot -- remains untold, museum curator Roxana Adams said.

Museum officials said they hope that is about to change as they get closer to receiving the funding needed to expand the facility and unveil some of the thousands of items in storage that reveal the city's rich history.

"We have rotating exhibits and displays in the community, but that still doesn't tap at some of the wonderful things we have in our collection," Adams said. "For example, we have this handcrafted pipe organ that was played at the local hardware store in the early 1950s. It may sound strange to have organ music at a hardware store, but it was the thing to do. Someone would go buy nails and be serenaded by the store's owner."

In 2004, the Manassas City Council approved a 6,000-square-foot expansion to the museum at 9101 Prince William St., which will about doubles its size. The council, however, left it up to Manassas Museum officials to come up with the funding.

"I've always been a supporter of the museum, but I think the majority of the council was looking at the economic situation," said council member J. Steven Randolph (I), who was on the council at the time. "The council wants to see the museum grow, but we have limited resources, and it's difficult to find extra money for a large city donation."

John Verrill, the museum's director, said the final cost for the expansion will be $1.5 million to $3 million. The museum has received about $900,000 from a trust fund and $100,000 from the state legislature for the expansion.

Verrill said a committee was recently created to decide how to raise the additional money needed. Staffing shortages and alterations to the design plans have slowed the process down.

Verrill said the expansion will provide additional space for galleries and the lobby, the latter of which is barely big enough for school and other groups of 40 to 50. The space will also allow museum officials to bring numerous items out of storage and host more public programs, speakers and special events.

"We want to be able to exhibit more and tell some of the stories more in depth," Verrill said. "Many objects we have are borrowed and have never been exhibited before. . . . And we are still getting stuff today."

Adams said the museum system has 10,000 objects and about 100 cubic feet of archival materials. Of that, only 5 percent is on display. Besides the old organ, other items in storage include a rope bed, a 100-year-old rifle collection, letters from Civil War soldiers and 30,000 negatives that show the town after World War II.

"We have the potential for numerous displays but are missing the space," Adams said. "We also can't take advantage of traveling exhibitions that many folks would be interested in because we have no place to put them."

Verrill said about 20,000 people a year visit the museum, which opened in 1971 near the Olde Towne Inn and moved to its current location 20 years later. The museum chronicles the city's history from the farming and railroad days through the Civil War and the early 1930s. The expansion, however, will give museum officials the space to display artifacts from the past 75 years -- a time period not currently represented.

"The more objects we get out there, the more history we can tell," Adams said. "Our stories are not as strong as they could be because we can't put all our objects out."

Although the city won't provide funding for the expansion, it allocated $990,000 to the Manassas Museum System in the fiscal 2009 budget, Verrill said, adding that through admissions and fundraising, the museum system usually gives about $250,000 back to the city at the end of the year.

The city funding goes toward the museum system's eight sites, which include the Manassas Railroad Depot, the Candy Factory, Liberia House and Cannon Branch Forts.

Verrill said officials hope to have the museum expansion completed by July 2011, which marks the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas and Virginia's sesquicentennial commemoration of its participation in the Civil War.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company