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New London — A five-story, mostly glass National Coast Guard Museum that will jut out over the Thames River like the bow of a ship could draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually and transform the city, officials involved in the project announced Friday.
The $80 million future museum behind Union Station and bounded by Cross Sound Ferry and City Pier will have 26,000 square feet of exhibition space, 5,000 square feet of event space, a glass-roofed atrium, a gift shop, café and rooms for lectures and workshops.
A sweeping curve of glass faÇade will face south, downriver toward Long Island Sound. On the north side will be exhibition space and a view of river traffic. The Coast Guard barque Eagle could move from Fort Trumbull to City Pier, and visiting Coast Guard ships also could tie up there.
Designed "with a 9-year-old in mind," the museum will have a platform to stand on to see how long it takes to get seasick and controls to make it feel like a visitor is steering the "ship" out into the Thames. It will have a rescue boat simulator so people can feel what it's like to be strapped into a boat that rolls over.
And it will have one of the original 13-star American flags — all by way of creating what the commandant said Coast Guard men and women deserve: a tangible, visible monument to their commitment, sacrifice and service.
"The museum will be a magnet to bring people to the waterfront and revitalize the city we all love so much,'' Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the commandant of the Coast Guard, said Friday during the announcement at the Science & Technology Magnet High School.
In addition to the museum, the three-pronged project includes a pedestrian bridge above the railroad tracks and a new terminal for high-speed ferry passengers. The state has pledged $20 million to build the bridge and for other infrastructure improvements. Cross Sound officials said they will build the terminal at a later date in conjunction with the museum project.
The glass-enclosed crossing to get pedestrians past the railroad tracks will lead to the museum's entrance and to the new ferry terminal while providing access to Union Station as well.
'A national treasure'
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Friday that New London is a community that is on its way back. Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., both called the project transformational.
"This museum will not only be a treasure for our city and our state, but it will also be a national treasure for the entire country,'' Finizio said. "Today is a great day."
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said the city has been waiting for a "magic ingredient" to capitalize on its many modes of transportation. "It has the bones of a tourist destination because of its great history," he said. "Clearly, having this blockbuster facility will make all of that come together."
Papp said he has seen other ports around the world capitalize on their waterfronts. He said he thought New London's participation in OpSail2000, the international gathering of tall ships, was going to be the turnaround for the city. But, he said, "We can't just come to the waterfront when we have waterfront festivals."
The head of the museum association, James J. Coleman Jr., said he hopes the four-story, 50,000-square-foot museum will open in about three years. It will be free to visitors, he said, and he expects 800,000 people per year. He is counting on some of those who take the ferry visit the museum.
More than a million people a year visit the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, which also has free admission. Its air shows are a big draw. The National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia attracts about half as many visitors each year.
'They will come back'
The association will begin a national fundraising campaign immediately, Coleman said. He expects to raise millions from large donors and plans to request some federal funding as well.
The exhibit designer, Patrick Gallagher, president of Gallagher & Associates of Washington, D.C., has worked on dozens of museums, including the International Spy Museum and the new National Army Museum.
The Coast Guard proposal was designed with a 9-year-old in mind, said Urs P. Gauchat, a dean at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who is the project architect.
"Whatever a 9-year-old likes, I like, too,'' Gauchat said. "And if a 9-year-old likes it, they will come back again and again and again.''
A 10-year-old who was in the audience loved the idea.
"It's going to be cool. I think it's going to be fun," said Brenten Kripas of New London, who added that he would like to visit the museum every few months.
Papp said he wants to take Coast Guard artifacts out of storage and put them on display. The facility will tell the story of the Coast Guard's past, present and future.
"That's why I want this museum," Papp said. "I also want this museum for Katherine Beasley,'' he added, pointing to the Norwich Free Academy senior in the audience who has been accepted into the Class of 2017 at the Coast Guard Academy.
Beasley and Papp met just before Friday's announcement.
"This is not a prop,'' Papp said. "We need a museum for all the Katherine Beasleys out there and to attract more Katherine Beasleys to come into this service.''
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, "This is really a wow day for Connecticut — all of Connecticut, not only New London.''
At the end of the hour-long announcement, Finizio unveiled a framed, 13-star American flag dating back to the Revolutionary War that will go on display in the new museum. It is one of the last flags of its kind still in existence, he said.
"This is a national treasure that belongs in the national treasure we announced here today,'' Finizio said of the banner. The New London County Historical Society owns the flag and has agreed to lend it to the museum. Edward D. Baker, executive director of the society, said he hopes the flag will draw people out of the museum and into other historical sites throughout the city, including the Shaw Mansion and the Custom House Maritime Museum.
"We have our first exhibit,'' Papp said of the flag. "Now we just need a building to put it in.''