NEW ORLEANS — This city’s skyline is famously topped by the Superdome and the Crescent City Connection stretching across the Mississippi River. But late this year, a new element will emerge that has nothing to do with Mardi Gras, jazz or Super Bowl championships.
The canopy is the premier architectural feature of the National World War II Museum, a six-acre campus of pavilions tasked to create a sensory experience for visitors, many of whom only know it from movies or history class. Multimedia, from sound collages to lighting to elements such as snowflakes falling from the ceiling during the Battle of the Bulge, create immersive dives into each stage of the war. There are 250,000 artifacts — including a B17 bomber from 1941 — and more than 9,000 oral histories. The museum invites visitors to take a journey into the war that is both intellectually and emotionally rigorous.
But even besides the history, the canopy also represents progress for New Orleans itself. Before its construction, the most notable skyward element in the warehouse district, just steps from the museum, was the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, perched atop a 60-foot-tall column in the center of a traffic circle that still bears his name. That statue was removed last year; three other Confederate monuments in the city received the same fate.
Museum officials hope the canopy will continue the rebranding of New Orleans as a city that is looking forward and not grappling with the past. “It will be one of the great symbols of New Orleans,” museum president and chief executive Stephen Watson said of the canopy. “We believe it represents peace and unity. It will serve as the guardian of the story and the mission below.”
Bart Voorsanger, the New York-based architect who created the master plan for the museum campus, said the idea of peace emerged organically in the design. He said the transparency of the open framework combined with the strength of the individual components suggest a delicacy that is always on edge when conflicting sides seek a resolution.
“To seek peace and maintain peace you need strength and you need a certain amount of emotional transparency as well as a flexibility in your negotiation. I wanted it to have these three components,” he said.
Voorsanger was particularly interested in creating serenity during nighttime hours, as well as during the day. That’s why the canopy is rigged with an exterior LED system that will transmit colors up its support legs and through its fiberglass panels at the top.
The canopy will also act as a screen upon which programmable lighting and messaging can be projected from below. The power of the lighting is meant to compete with the rainbow of lights that circle the Superdome each night. “The lights will be quite dramatic. People will start identifying [the canopy] with the city and the state,” said Bob Farnsworth, senior vice president of capital programs. “During sporting events, the cameras that focus on the Superdome are going to be swinging over here.”
The museum itself dates back to 1990 when history scholar Stephen Ambrose, then on the faculty of the University of New Orleans, suggested his city would be a natural home to permanently house the artifacts and documents he collected during the writing of two of his books, one on D-Day and the other on a parachute infantry company in the 101st Airborne Division he named the “Band of Brothers.” Ten years of organizing and $25 million in fundraising led to the opening of the National D-Day Museum in June 2000. Within a few years the museum’s national board suggested an expansion of its original mission to cover the full spectrum of the war. The ribbon cutting for the first phase took place in April 2006, less than a year after the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina submerged the city.
Since then, the museum has unfolded pavilion by pavilion; there are currently five; each covers a different phase of the war — the European and Pacific theaters, for example — or houses the museum’s impressive research facilities. The U.S. Freedom Pavilion lets visitors scale sky-high catwalks for intimate views of giant military war machines, such as planes, bombers, jeeps and the USS Tang submarine, which saw action late in the war.
Two more pavilions are under construction: the 34,800-square-foot Hall of Democracy, which will house the museum’s digitized collection of oral histories, photographs, artifacts, and archives, is scheduled to open in 2019. The Liberation Pavilion will cover the Holocaust and the reverberations of the war long after Paris Peace Treaties of 1947. Hilton is also constructing an eight-story hotel and conference center adjacent to the property that will accommodate 20,000 guests. The campus is expected to be complete by 2021.
More buildings, more space, more programming: The continual expanse of the museum is intended to confirm New Orleans as a place to encourage visitors to the city outside Mardi Gras and festival season. Voorsanger said the canopy, which will cover the campus as if protecting it, unifies the stark buildings that do not follow the classical architectural elements found nearby in the Garden District or French Quarter. The freedom to create buildings that are more contemporary but also neutral — like a battleship — “permitted freedom to tell a story that is not timid.”
“They’re not steeped in a particular vernacular,” he said of his pavilions. “It’s an international story housed in a warehouse district. That gave us the freedom to express it in a different vocabulary altogether.”