By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
The Smithsonian Institution may have gone through some dismal times in recent years, but it still appears to have a sense of humor.
More than 250 guests gathered yesterday at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center for a symbolic "wall breaking" to launch construction of a $74 million, 220,000-square-foot expansion of the companion to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The new wing is to open in 2011.
With a fanfare playing over loudspeakers and an audience countdown, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough pushed down a giant throttle, causing a wrecking ball to . . . drop to the floor. "What's going on? Is there a Plan B?" asked Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, the museum's director.
Suddenly, a Bobcat tractor driven by the museum's deputy director, Gen. Joseph Anderson (dressed in a flight suit and fighter pilot helmet), came zooming down a walkway and crashed through the wall.
Cue smoke machines and big chuckles from the audience.
The three-level addition is scheduled to open in March 2011 and will give visitors the opportunity to watch the precise work of reconstruction and repairs. Those repairs are currently done at a facility in Suitland, which is closed to the public.
When the Northern Virginia museum opened in December 2003, officials planned for an adjacent addition, which would house a restoration hangar, archives, a conservation laboratory and a storage facility. Fundraising for the project stalled, and the plans were put on hold.
The total cost of the expansion is $74 million, and $56.6 million has been raised.
Boeing gave $15 million in 2006. And this January, the new wing received $15 million from the family of Don Engen, who was director of the Air and Space Museum when he died in a glider crash in 1999. The Engen family gave the gift after hearing about the difficulties with fundraising; the restoration hangar will be named after Engen's wife, the late Mary Baker Engen.
Financing for the facility has been complicated. The first phase -- the existing 710,000-square-foot hangar -- received a landmark gift of $66 million from Udvar-Hazy, a businessman who made millions in the aircraft leasing business. The museum set an opening date of December 2003 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' historic flight.
"In order to open on time, we borrowed from the Smithsonian. We didn't have time to raise the rest of the money," Dailey said. The center owes the Smithsonian $35 million, which was taken from the institution's private fund. Dailey said fees are collected from the Imax theater, restaurants, simulators and parking lot.
The second phase was hampered not only by slow fundraising but also by construction costs that increased by 16 percent a year. Dailey said that the remaining $17.4 million will be raised by traditional sources and that the construction price is now frozen because officials are in the final stages of awarding a contract. "The bids are within our range," he said.
The project's architect is HOK, the same firm that built the Air and Space building on the Mall, as well as Phase 1 of the Udvar-Hazy Center. Museum officials say the construction should not disrupt museum visits.
Udvar-Hazy, in Chantilly, is about 28 miles from the landmark museum on the Mall, which is the most visited museum in the world. Early on, a shuttle operated between the Mall and the site near Dulles International Airport, but it was discontinued because of rising expenses and scant ridership.
When the Udvar-Hazy expansion was on the drawing board, the downtown museum was reporting 9 million visitors a year, and planners for the new attraction mixed together a variety of numbers and came up with an estimate of 2 million to 3 million visitors a year.
The center's attendance has hovered around 1 million annually. Through September, 893,000 people have visited in 2008. The Mall facility has had 5.8 million visitors.
"An early business estimate, again assuming there was a Metro at Dulles, said we would get to 1.5 million. People were thinking, 'Sure it could happen,' " Dailey said. "We are comfortable we are on course."
The attendance affects the income that the museum relies on to pay off its debt.
But yesterday, besides the practical jokes, there was much talk of inspiration. "Future generations will come here and be stunned by what those that came before them have done. They will see that they stand on the shoulders of giants," Clough said. "And as much as they may be in awe, they will also be inspired to take the next leap into the future."