What would you do?
Your organization owns a house of great importance to Civil War history and is dependent on admissions to maintain it. There were lots of visitors until a few years ago, when high-rises replaced older buildings in the neighborhood, partially concealing the building and taking away street parking.
The road in front is closed for construction, and when that building is finished, the three-story mansion will be nearly encircled by a business complex.
If you move it, the building's historic integrity is threatened, and preservationists are sure to protest. If you stay, you may go out of business.
That is the problem facing the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, which owns the 1818 mansion where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, lived with his family from 1861 to 1865. Open for public tours, the mansion's elegant Victorian interior is furnished with pieces from the war period.
Next door is the 1978 museum, a research facility known for its quality exhibits. Its current show is about the Confederate Navy.
Together, the properties are usually referred to as the Museum and White House of the Confederacy.
Until a decade ago, the mansion at 12th and Clay streets was easy to spot. Traffic passed by it on 12th Street, and street parking was available. Over the years, the neighboring Virginia Commonwealth University hospital began to expand, erecting high-rise buildings near the mansion and closing 12th Street during construction.
The hospital, with its large signs and tall metal and glass buildings, is easy to find. The museum is not. The new neighborhood has the feel of an urban college campus, not unlike George Washington University, with a quaint old building in its midst.
Museum Executive Director S. Waite Rawls III, who spent years in the business world, has studied the reasons for the museum's declining attendance.
"Visitation at tourist sites is down all over the country, except for Civil War sites," he said. "And we are the exception for the Civil War sites. Our visitation is down. I have to ask myself why."
He has concluded it is a combination of visibility, access and parking.
He said visitors often stop at the front desk to complain about how hard it is to find the place and a parking space. Visitors can park in the underground hospital garage, but spaces are limited. If they do find a spot, they must walk up to street level, where they face an enclosed walkway to the hospital or a sign pointing toward the museum.
"People come here and then tell their friends back home, 'It's a great place, but you'll never find it,' " he said. "What is the message? 'Don't bother.' "
Visitors spend money for admission and in the gift shop, and some become members of the museum, Rawls said. A large membership encourages donors to contribute funds and family heirlooms.
"We can't get them to join if they don't come through the door," he said.
Peak attendance came in 1990-91 with 91,000 visitors. The museum now draws about 50,000 a year, and Rawls expects that figure will drop to 30,000 within a few years.
"That is a difference of 60,000 people," he said. "We can't pay for programs, pay a staff and care for our collection with that attendance."
He said the endowment for the historic site has been spent down to about $3 million, and much of that money can't be touched for day-to-day needs.
So, Rawls said, there are three options: They can stay where they are, or build a new museum at another city location and leave the White House where it is, or move the White House and build a new museum.
He said he knows the third option will be very unpopular with preservationists and some members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. However, he has found what he considers an appropriate site near Monument Avenue, on the grounds of an old Civil War training camp. A move there would mean the house would be on historic grounds.
The museum's problems and the three options have been discussed at a series of hearings before the Virginia General Assembly Joint Subcommittee on the Museum of the Confederacy, a commission Rawls requested.
The final hearing is scheduled for Nov. 21, and a report is expected next year.
Rawls is leaning toward moving both buildings.
"We would like to relocate," he said. "We'd like to do it with a public consensus, but we can't wait forever. If it takes 10 years, we won't make it."
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or email@example.com.