Source, The Philadelphia Business Journal, Kenneth Hilario
Something “revolutionary” is happening at the Valley Forge National Historical Park, giving visitors a more immersive experience.
The visitor center at the park, which is one of the top tourist attractions in Greater Philadelphia, will get updates north of $14 million — the building’s first comprehensive overhaul of since 1976, when the park became a national historical park.
Officials at the Valley Forge National Historical Park planned updates are split between two projects:
$12 million for a comprehensive overhaul of the building, set to begin in late fall 2018 and conclude in late spring 2020; and
$2.2 million for new exhibits and an orientation film, set for a spring 2020 completion
“The visitor center is designed to be immersive,” Jonathan Parker, chief of interpretation and public information officer, told the Philadelphia Business Journal.
The 3,452-acre park is the location of the 1777-78 winter encampment of the Continental Army under George Washington, whose war tent is now at the Museum of the American Revolution in Old City.
Visitors should walk away with two “fundamental” experiences after the update: The experience of being in the encampment and seeing items from the original site.
“Interactive exhibits provide new opportunities to learn and interact with the history to this place,” said Parker, who said he hopes the film compels visitors to explore the park sites or visit The Encampment Store “to pick up where the film left off.”
After the $12 million rehabilitation project, the 18,376-square-foot visitor center will have improved physical accessibility, upgraded security and fire protection, improved collections storage, new HVAC systems, new windows, new finishes and energy-efficiency improvements.
The visitor center will be closed during the project, but a full-service temporary visitor center will be constructed in the current center’s parking lot. The National Park Service, The Encampment Store and Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board will manage it.
New York architectural firm Davis Brody Bond is spearheading the rehabilitation project.
The $2.2 million project will add new museum exhibits, where visitors can experience the six-month period of the 1777-78 winter encampment through color, sound and textures of wood, metal and mud.
“Through this visitor center rehabilitation, we’re providing something new and updated,” Superintendent Steve Sims told the Business Journal. “It will be a much more complete story. This will be revolutionary for the park.”
The five-part exhibit, designed by Virginia-based exhibit design firm The Design Minds, will include over 300 museum objects from the park collection, interactives, tactile demonstrations and audio-visual presentations.
The exhibit will tell the story of citizen efforts to preserve Valley Forge through images, artifacts and stories from the past 150 years of park preservation.
Pittsburgh-based Argentine Productions is producing a new 14-to-16-minute orientation film involving the history of the winter encampment, available to view at the park and online in 2020.
“Having this investment will re-engage our community, attract new visitors and have an impact on the local economy,” Superintendent Sims said.
With over 2.4 million visitors in 2016, the Valley Forge National Historical Park is the third-most visited tourist attraction in the Philadelphia region, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal Book of Lists.
It generates nearly $50 million in economic impact to surrounding communities, Sims said. “For every dollar invested, there’s a $10 return to the U.S. economy. For a $14 million investment, that’s $140 million contributed to the U.S. economy,” Sims explained.
The Valley Forge National Historical Park is the “gateway” for visitors coming to Montgomery County, according to Mike Bowman, president and CEO of the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board.
“It’s beyond important to support improvement projects that will only enhance key programming and, therefore, guests’ experiences,” Bowman said.
The tourism board will promote the renovations and the “ongoing experiences like the trolley tours, storytelling benches and ranger-led tours,” said Edward Harris, the tourism board’s chief marketing officer.
The Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board in July will highlight the visitor center’s programs and events with its new partnership with Welcome America that will highlight Montgomery County’s history and enable the tourism board to reach a broad audience of potential new visitors.
The Valley Forge National Historical Park’s visitor center isn’t the only one in the region getting a facelift. The Independence Visitor Center is undergoing its own $15 million expansion project.
The Independence National Historical Park is the the top-ranking tourist attraction in the region, according to the Book of Lists, with over 5 million visitors in 2016.
Construction for the Independence Visitor Center’s update started in September 2017, and the Independence Visitor Center Corp. is raising funds for the remaining $2 million needed to complete all phases of the project, according to new information given to the Business Journal by the corporation.
The first funded phases of the project will open this spring and summer. The newly expanded gift shop will open Memorial Day weekend, and the expanded terrace will open in early summer. The newly constructed restrooms, now located on the east side of the building near the Market Street entrance, opened in December.
As construction continues on the next funded phases of the project, the Independence Visitor Center will open two newly renovated theater experiences this fall. One will have a “Philadelphia Welcome” dedicated theme.
Also planned for this fall is a new National Park Service information desk and immersive digital exhibit experiences. The final phases of the project include a newly renovated Philadelphia information desk and a 42-foot-tall digital “Welcome Wall” comprised of 18 screens.
The National Park Service and the Hopewell Furnance National Historic Site in Elverson, Pa., manage the Valley Forge National Historical Park.