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Here is where you can stay most up-to-date with the publication of Charles Knight's Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market, including the latest info on its release, up-coming appearances by the author, latest reviews, more in-depth looks at various aspects of the battle and anything else that comes to mind.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The "Hall of Valor" - Part 1

Any visitor to New Market Battlefield State Historical Park and its “Hall of Valor” museum/visitor center is bound to notice the, shall we call it, “unusual” architectural design of the HOV. Few folks today know it, but today’s HOV was not the original design – the original created a storm of debate when approved in 1966 by VMI and then was subsequently rejected by the Virginia Art Commission, which led to the eventual adoption of today’s HOV.

The Hall of Valor (seen above in an architect’s rendering reprinted on the front page of the New Market Shenandoah Valley of November 3, 1966) was to commemorate not just the VMI Cadets who participated in the battle, but “to honor the courage of all American fighting men throughout history,” according to an un-named VMI spokesman [Shenandoah Valley,11-3-66]. The design was approved unanimously by VMI’s Board of Visitors in late October 1966, with construction expected to begin in the Spring of 1967 and the building to open to visitors in the Summer of 1968. Designed by Meathe, Kessler and Associates of Grosse Pointe, MI, the 2-story, $500,000 building was designed to be eye-catching. Perhaps the architects were a little too successful in that.

VMI Superintendent Maj. Gen. George R.E. Shell stated that the architects had been charged with designing something “arresting, unusual, and a memorial to the strength and courage of the cadets” [qtd in Staunton News-Leader, 12-18-66]. Perhaps part of the thinking behind a modernistic building was, as one local newspaper editorialized, that with the building being highly visible from nearby Interstate 81, something so highly unusual and out-of-place was bound to draw attention, and by extension, visitors [Woodstock Shenandoah Herald, 12-29-66].

Immediately detractors questioned why such a modern architectural style was used. Some compared it to a bunker of the Maginot Line – the fortifications constructed in the 1930s along the border between France and Germany - the “Maginot Line Memorial” they called it [Staunton News-Leader, 12-18-66]. To some it looked more like something from “outer space” [Strasburg Northern Virginia Daily, 11-8-66]. The Woodstock Shenandoah Herald declared the design “looked a little like something borrowed from a World Fair, and damaged in shipping” [12-29-66]. The Winchester Star declared “the design proposed to honor the VMI cadets engaged in the Battle of New Market…ludicrous. It is about as fitting as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of World War I sporting a Green Beret or the monument aboard the USS Arizona in the mud of Pearl Harbor being used as a platform for a Titan missile” [qtd in Staunton News-Leader, 12-18-66]. One Front Royal writer voiced the sentiments of many in the Valley: “It might be very appropriate for a space-age factory or World’s Fair science center, but it certainly is incongruous as a memorial to the VMI cadets and the events which the site is to commemorate. The proposed building appears to be a replica of the Virginia Civil War Centennial Center erected in Richmond, which was equally inappropriate for the State’s observance of that Centennial” [NVD, 11-16-66].

That is not to say the building didn’t have its supporters. The VMI Board of Visitors unanimously approved the design, and it did have some support in the community although apparently few were privy to the design before its approval. Ironically, even though newspapers across Virginia condemned the design, New Market’s own paper thought it “ideal:”

“The building as proposed is ideally suited for the purpose it is supposed to serve. Functionally it is remarkably well arranged to make it easy for the traveling public to see the various features of the building, display relics of the Battle of New Market, giving a dramatic re-enactment [sic] of the historic episode that made the engagement famous, and make the most of the magnificent panorama to the north, east, south, and west that can be observed from the point the building will occupy.

“There are those who would like to see the structure follow the general motif of Colonial architecture. While they agree that such should be the case, few have the same idea of what Colonial architecture really is…

“The individual, who goes whole hog for a Colonial treatment, has in mind the impression that the exterior makes. To him that is interesting, indicative of something and important. There is a question if the millions that travel nearby Interstate 81 will react favorably to such an exterior image. To many it will be just another musty Civil War Museum, and old soldiers’ home or something from the moldy past.

“The proposed exterior appearance is ultra modern. It is very striking. It is attention compelling. It stimulates interest. It would be sufficiently provocative to cause many to slow their pell mell rush and take time out just to see what it is and what it stands for.

“It’s not enough to have a handsome structure in the best tradition of the Colonial period for the passing motorist to admire. It must stop him in his tracks, stimulate him to take a peek and actually visit the place. We feel that the proposed treatment will insure much more traffic through the visitor’s center to see its unique features and the matters of historic interest.” [New Market Shenandoah Valley, 12-29-66]

The building’s detractors seemingly got their way when the Virginia Arts Commission rejected the design, just before Christmas 1966. (Yet the Commission did not give their reason for rejecting the plan, nor did they initially suggest any changes or alternatives. While their reasoning was unknown, it was not because of the futuristic appearance of the building, as the commissioners were known to favor such architectural style over something more conservative or classical – such as the Colonial theme some wanted.) This threw plans for the development of the Battlefield Park into some confusion, as the overall timeline for the Park called for groundbreaking on the Hall of Valor to take place in the Spring of 1967. With the design for the HOV all but approved, Institute and Park officials had been ready to put out a request for bids for the actual construction of the HOV – having to come up with a new architectural plan for the HOV at that stage of the game simply had not been anticipated. While dealing with this hurdle, Park Director James Geary was able to continue with plans to restore the Bushong House and other aspects of park interpretation.

Although there was some debate as to whether the Commission even had jurisdiction in the matter – the argument being that the funds to construct the HOV were not “public” funds but rather part of the bequest to VMI from George Collins specifically for the creation and interpretation of New Market Battlefield, which was countered by the fact that the Park was administered by Virginia Military Institute, a state-supported school, thus the funds were now indeed “public” even if they did not originate as tax dollars – the “Maginot Line Memorial” was scrapped, and eventually today’s Hall of Valor was constructed (which will be examined in a future post).

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