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Virginia Beach's Francis Land House will be renovated and turned into a WWII museum

By ALISSA SKELTON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: December 27, 2018

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (Tribune News Service)  For more than 30 years, the Francis Land House has taught elementary students about a wealthy plantation owner and slavery during the early 1800s.

But that's about to change.

After Dec. 29, the museum will close for at least a year and undergo an estimated $950,000 in renovations.

Currently, the exhibit focuses on the family of Francis Land VI, and visitors can see a first-floor bedroom, parlor and dining area. After it's remodeled, the exhibit will feature the DeFrees family, who lived in the home during World War II. Raymond DeFrees was a civil engineer.

The exhibit will be temporary — five years at most. The city's museums department is changing the focus to diversify its educational curriculum.

“We want to look at a different period of the house’s history,” said Ann Miller, Virginia Beach’s history museums manager. “The house has been here for more than 200 years — we’ve spent 32 of those years looking just at the period it was built, so we’d like to look at some of its 20th Century history.”

The museums department also plans to ask the City Council for about $2.5 million to build a new visitor’s center that would be separate from the house and to demolish the modern addition. That funding hasn’t been approved.

The Francis Land House is located along Virginia Beach Boulevard between several commercial businesses.

The Historic Houses Foundation, a nonprofit board affiliated with the city, pitched a renovation plan to council members three years ago. Cynthia Spanoulis, the museums director, said the foundation began holding workshops with the community in 2014 to come up with new exhibits for the city’s three historic homes.

The majority of visitors to the Francis Land House are elementary school children. The museum competes with a lot of other historic sites in the area — including Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown.

Miller said it made sense to change the Francis Land House since exhibits on slavery and plantation life will be covered at the Thoroughgood House and the Lynnhaven House.

The city worked with the school district to create a curriculum that would match what is being taught. Miller wants the new museum to be interactive and draw middle school and high school students. The museum also plans to partner with military groups.

“We need to bring in new visitors to bring life to this house and to make it successful and sustainable,” she said. “That’s what we are hoping to do with the World War II exhibit.”

In addition to changing the focus, the house needs a lot of work, Miller said. It will get a new heating and cooling system, an electrical system, which hasn’t been updated since the 1950s, and new fire suppression. Several methods will be used to prevent moisture from further damaging the house. Lawn work will also be done to prevent water from pooling near the house and seeping into the basement's electrical room.

To try to recreate the house, city staff interviewed one of the living relatives who had stayed at the home, Miller said.

“We are looking forward to moving into another phase of the house’s history,” Miller said. “We will do it with the intent of sharing and learning more about the house; not with a plan to destroy or let go of any work that has been done in the past. We are just building more knowledge.”

The house will have seven rooms for people to walk through that will be on the first and second levels. It will show visitors what it was like for a wealthy family living in rural Virginia during World War II.

For the first time, the top floor will be open to the public. Miller said a lot of visitors ask why they can't go upstairs, which houses staff offices. Those desks will be moved to another city building.

“It won’t be a velvet rope kind of experience at all,” Miller said. “We want people to be immersed and not really feel like it is an exhibit at all but like they are going into a house and can make themselves comfortable.”

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