Using present to safeguard history for future

Marble, roses and mushrooms enjoy symbiotic Chester County connections that represent one of myriad insights available to visitors of the Chester County Historical Society (CCHS).

Ellen Endslow, the Chester County Historical Society's co-director of 'A Place in History,"  is joined by Suzanne and Abby Ch

Insisting the red,white and blue apparel was accidental, Ellen Endslow (from left), the Chester County Historical Society's co-director of 'A Place in History," is joined by Suzanne Gaadt, the project manager, and Abbie Chessler, a Quatrefoil founding partner during the preview.

Ellen Endslow, CCHS’s director of collections, promised to explain the relationship, but not until CCHS officials unveiled preliminary plans for a major makeover of its space that will alter the way such information is disseminated.

Work has already begun on “A Place in History,” a $2.2 million permanent exhibition-space renovation that will enable visitors to traverse 300 years of county history in 6,000 square feet.

The preview, held at the Historical Society on Wednesday, May 27, also involved Suzanne Gaadt, the project manager, and representatives from Quatrefoil, the design and fabrication firm. The excitement of the presenters was matched by the enthusiasm of the audience, which included past and current board members, stakeholders and staff.

County Commissioner Michelle H. Kichline said the county’s rich, historical roots serve as an attraction for residents as well as businesses. “The history is so tied to the quality of place we have here,” she said. She said the commissioners are committed to supporting CCHS, which spotlights that historic legacy. “In order to survive in the future, we have to look to our past,” she said.

CCHS President Rob Lukens, who is serving as co-director of the project with Endslow, said facilitating that understanding of the past would drive the new design, which will use the existing footprint. Visitors will embark on an emotional, multi-media journey through the decades as they navigate the redesigned space, creating a 21st-century experience.

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CCHS President Rob Lukens says numerous naming opportunities will exist in the re-designed space, such as having a gallery in someone's honor.

Interactive maps, touch screens and audio-visual effects will enhance the odyssey. Visible storage units are also part of the plan, Lukens said.

“We want to make the wow factor so intense that you want to come back,” Lukens said.

He said the work began in 2010 when the society received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to explore making its vast collection of artifacts more engaging and accessible and to improve the society’s mission “to inform, inspire, and build community identity.”

After extensive research and surveys, CCHS began interviewing those who submitted bids, concluding that Quatrefoil, an exhibit design firm based in Laurel, Md., was “a perfect fit,” Lukens said.

Abbie Chessler, a Quatrefoil founding partner, said it was thrilling to be working on a project that “encompasses the whole sweep of American history.” She said input would be welcomed, especially as the project nears the end of the first of three phases. “The exhibit train has left the station; we’re at the first stop,” she said.

Michael W. Burns, a Quatrefoil design director, said the design is still at “a conceptual stage, but jelling in a very interesting way.”

Endslow added that the visible storage, including self-serve drawers, would enable the society to provide access to parts of its massive collection that have rarely been viewed. And contrary to what some might think: “We do not accept everything offered to us,” she said.

Lukens explained that the ambitious undertaking was being previewed in hopes that it would galvanize support and encourage donations. He said about $700,000 has been raised so far. Any funds up to $1 million that come in during 2015 would be matched by an anonymous donor, he said, adding that numerous naming opportunities also exist for galleries or exhibits. In addition to the costs for the redesign, Lukens said CCHS would like to create a $1 million endowment to maintain the exhibit over time.

“This is very, very exciting,” said West Chester Mayor Carolyn Comitta during a comment period. She said she hoped the new space would encourage civic engagement and continue to provide “a place for people to come together.”

Molly Morrison, president of Natural Lands Trust, asked whether agriculture, which continues to be one of the county’s leading industries, would play a role in the exhibit. A strong presence is planned, Endslow said. In fact, it helps to explain the marble, rose, and mushroom mystery.

Charlie Brosius, a former CCHS trustee, said skilled marble-cutters who emigrated to the U.S. from Italy in the late 1800s to work in the quarries in West Grove and Avondale needed work in the winter when it was too cold to cut stone. Many found jobs in greenhouses, such as those operated by rose giant Conard-Pyle in West Grove.

When the recession hit the horticultural industry, forcing some companies into bankruptcy, the Italian Americans, who had successfully grown mushrooms in the greenhouses, were able to buy some of the flower businesses. That ultimately led to the mushroom boom in Kennett Square, Brosius said.

Bill Latoff, a former CCHS board chairman, said he was impressed with the project and applauded all of the people whose vision made it possible. He said he could remember not too long ago when the future of CCHS was imperiled. During that turbulent time, he said people often asked him why he fought to keep the institution alive.

“Tonight I got my answer,” Latoff said. “This place is outstanding.”

George Zumbano, the current board chairman, said he hoped prospective donors would take advantage of the opportunity to have their gift matched, and he expressed appreciation to those who have already contributed, urging them to engage others.

To learn more about CCHS and its latest initiative, call 610-692-4800, email info@chestercohistorical.org, or visit www.chestercohistorical.org.

 

 

 

 

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