Two towns vie for 'national' Medal of Honor museum
AUSTIN, Texas — In two cities more than a thousand miles apart, residents and council members are celebrating plans to build a museum honoring the 3,507 service members who received the Medal of Honor. Each needs to raise tens of millions of dollars, and both predict opening dates within a year of each other.
It’s no coincidence that the two projects, planned for Arlington, Texas, and Mount Pleasant, S.C., are humming along at the same time.
One was created in the wake of the other leaving town.
Mount Pleasant was five years and $20 million into planning and fundraising for its Medal of Honor Museum when new leadership took charge. The vision changed, with a desire for a museum that would attract a broader audience and bigger tourism numbers and have more national impact than Mount Pleasant could deliver.
While some in town believe the new leadership of the foundation lured the museum away from its roots, it contends the goal was to give a larger platform to the prestigious medal. The decision was made to move the museum to Texas, leaving behind a small town whose residents believed their charity went unappreciated.
But Mount Pleasant wasn’t done in its quest to honor those who earned the military’s highest award for valor.
The beginningThe concept for a large-scale Medal of Honor Museum began in 2013 in Mount Pleasant, just outside Charleston, where a small museum dedicated to the nation’s highest medal for service exists aboard the USS Yorktown. A foundation was formed to move the museum landside near the retired World War II aircraft carrier at its permanent dock in a tourist destination in the Charleston Harbor known as Patriots Point.
But after six years of planning and raising about $20 million, the foundation announced in October that it would instead build its museum in Arlington, nestled alongside the Texas Rangers baseball stadium and the Dallas Cowboys football stadium.
“It was made clear to us after much deliberation that the desire of an overwhelming number of [Medal of Honor] recipients to have a larger national platform was not achievable in South Carolina,” said Monica Notzon, vice president of external affairs for the National Medal of Honor Foundation. “In November of 2018, we announced our desire to find a location that would allow the museum to measure visitation in millions and not thousands, and bring the highest visibility to the Medal of Honor and the recipients.”
While the Charleston region boasts about 7 million tourists each year, Arlington has double that, according to data from each city. Dallas, just 25 minutes east of Arlington, has about 27 million annual visitors, according to its data.
New board members and new employees were just announced for the Texas project, and renowned international architect Rafael Viñoly will design the project.
“In keeping with our well-known Arlington can-do spirit, the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation has joined the north Texas community with a bang,” said Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams in a statement. “In the 100 days since they announced Arlington as the museum’s home, the foundation has laid down strong roots in north Texas, doubling the size of the staff, adding great Texas leaders to the board of directors, and selecting an architect and design worthy of this amazing mission.”
Regardless of the reason for leaving, donors in South Carolina felt betrayed, and some believed the town council killed the project by not approving building plans. But another contingent decided to pick up where the previous foundation left off, rebuild trust and give the town of Mount Pleasant the museum it was promised.
“We feel like we have been taken advantage of because that foundation is from here, that money was given to build [a museum] here, and that designation as national — they don’t have any such designation,” said Will Haynie, mayor of Mount Pleasant. Though the foundation uses the word “national” when referring to itself, the descriptor is not included in its nonprofit paperwork.
There’s also a law passed by Congress that Haynie and those affiliated with the new Mount Pleasant museum efforts believe makes theirs worthy of the national designation.
In 1999 Congress passed the National Medal of Honor Memorial Act naming Riverside, Calif.; Indianapolis and Mount Pleasant “national Medal of Honor sites,” because the cities “honor recipients of the Medal of Honor.”
In November, two Texas congressmen introduced the similarly named National Medal of Honor Monument Act, which would task the Arlington foundation with building a monument in Washington and designate the Texas site as the National Medal of Honor Museum. The bill has not moved beyond introduction.
“They are using the name ‘national’ to raise money knowing they are not the national museum,” said Tom McQueeney, chairman of the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum Foundation, launched in July to build a museum in Mount Pleasant.
Haynie contends the town council didn’t push the foundation away, but instead offered numerous waivers and moved deadlines to help get the design of the museum approved.
The approval deadline in 2018 coincided with the hiring of Joseph Daniels as the foundation CEO — the fourth to take the job in five years. Daniels served as president of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, joining the project in 2005 first as general counsel. That museum opened about nine years later, and he left the organization at the end of 2016.
Around the time Daniels came on board for the Medal of Honor Museum, the foundation began to butt heads with Mount Pleasant over a design that did not meet the town’s strict building codes.
The group began to miss some important deadlines with Patriots Point. Based on its lease, which gave the foundation waterfront property for $1 a year for 99 years, the fundraising and design efforts had to meet certain progress deadlines, said Chris Hauff, spokesman for Patriots Point Development Authority, which is a state agency.
“We were really proud of the idea of having a much bigger presence of the Medal of Honor Museum here at Patriots Point — having the National Medal of Honor Museum here,” Hauff said. “I did speaking engagements all over the state about what it means for us.”
Local officials imagined Patriots Point becoming a “weekend destination for patriotism,” Hauff said, with the larger museum adding to the military-themed attractions in the harbor: three retired Naval ships, nearly two dozen aircraft, the Naval and Maritime Museum and an outdoor Vietnam War exhibit.
Later in 2018, the foundation’s proposed design for the museum, created by celebrated architect and urban designer Moshe Safdie, who was hired for $3.5 million, was rejected by the Mount Pleasant town council. While some argued the building sharply contrasted with the look and feel of Charleston, the vote focused on the fact that it did not meet the building codes, Haynie said.
At 140 feet tall, the Pentagon-shaped design far exceeded the 50-foot limit of waterfront construction.
After months of public input and a waiver on design rules from the council, the foundation resubmitted nearly the same design, lowering the height to fit restrictions along the waterfront.
By then, it was too late. Haynie and Daniels had a meeting at city hall in September 2018, asking what could be done to reduce tension. Haynie’s question: If the council approved the design, would the foundation stay in town?
Starting overSoon after the meeting, the foundation announced it would begin a national search for a city to host the museum.
Its lease with Patriots Point remained in place. By Nov. 30, 2018, the foundation was to have certain design aspects approved to allow for a city-owned road to be moved. That missed deadline triggered the cancellation of the lease, Hauff said.
“They had a lack of fundraising around that, too,” he said.
Mount Pleasant spent about $373,000 on engineer and design plans to move its roadway, assuming the foundation would meet its required deadlines. In December 2019, the town council voted to send a letter to the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation asking for the funds to be reimbursed.
“We’re not trying to turn this into a legal battle, we’re just sending a letter saying we spent this on your behalf on good faith,” Haynie said. “We respectfully request you reimburse us for money spent on your behalf.”
Notzon contends that “no money is owed the city of Mount Pleasant.”
Another local group is asking for the return of about $50,000 donated from funds raised at the now-defunct Medal of Honor Bowl, a college football all-star game. A handful of South Carolina residents also are requesting the foundation return tens of thousands of dollars donated with the intention of funding a local museum.
“The point is [Daniels] hasn’t responded,” McQueeney said. “These people are very angry here. They spent money to build a museum in Mount Pleasant where it was designated.”
Notzon, with the Texas museum foundation, acknowledged the receipt of letters from donors requesting their money back.
“We are handling the very limited requests from individual donors for refunds on an individual basis,” she said in a statement, though she did not answer whether any refunds had been sent to South Carolina donors.
The foundation returned $5 million to the state of South Carolina that was given in the project’s early stages to boost fundraising efforts.
Trying again in South CarolinaBecause many in South Carolina lost trust in donating to a Medal of Honor Museum, McQueeney and the new Mount Pleasant foundation have promised “a museum or your money back.”
Anyone who donates toward the $45 million goal will get their funds returned should the foundation fail to make the museum a reality. It’s projected opening date is July 4, 2023.
So far, the new museum has raised more than $20 million since its July announcement and has released a design concept of the building. Mount Pleasant council has pledged $3 million. Charleston County also approved $5 million over 10 years, contingent on city and state support, the latter of which is being discussed, McQueeney said.
“We’re working as a well-meaning, well-organized group with a wonderful purpose and with everyone pulling together,” he said. “We have some very, very generous people here.”
However, the new foundation is still lacking a lease with the Patriots Point for a set location for their museum. Following the cancellation of the previous lease, the Patriots Point board of directors adopted seven criteria that must be met before they will enter into a new lease for such a project, Hauff said. They are working with the new foundation to meet that criteria.
Moving ahead in TexasIn Arlington, the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation is moving forward with its $200 million fundraising goal, Notzon said. About $150 million will go toward a museum projected to open in 2024, and the remainder is for a monument in Washington, which is pending Congressional approval.
The land offered for the museum is owned by the city of Arlington and currently leased to the Texas Rangers baseball team, said Susan Schrok, city spokeswoman. A lease with the museum foundation is currently under development and expected to be formalized in early 2020.
The foundation is officially working from offices in the Globe Life Park — part of the former Rangers’ stadium — and hired seven new employees, according to a January news release.
“2020 is off to an amazing start,” Daniels, the foundation CEO, said in a statement. “Between a world-class site and unparalleled support in Arlington, Texas, our new chief architect and our tremendous new hires and board members, we have amazing partners in our mission to preserve the stories of Medal of Honor recipients and give all Americans a place to honor and learn from their courage, sacrifice and love of country. These national heroes gave everything they could to protect our nation. It’s incumbent on all of us to come together as a country to now give back.”
When asked about current fundraising, Notzon said they have more than 25,000 donors in all 50 states and are “making good headway” toward their goal. She did not disclose how much of the $20 million raised in South Carolina was still on the books when the foundation moved to Texas, and those financial records were not available online.
Honoring the medalCaught in the middle of these two museum endeavors is the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, a nonprofit chartered by Congress in 1958 and dedicated to caring for the 71 living recipients of the medal and conducting programs that inspire and educate based on their legacy. Like the current Medal of Honor Museum, the society’s administrative offices and climate-controlled archival storage sit aboard the USS Yorktown.
Because of the flurry of museum announcements, the society released a statement in October reiterating that it planned to remain on the ship.
“We support any organization that desires to highlight the Medal of Honor recipients, especially the 71 living recipients, and the legacy of the Medal of Honor,” Drew D. Dix, Medal of Honor recipient and president of the society, said in the statement. “We assist in many ways – through character development programs in schools nationwide and outreach programs with our recipients into the veteran and military communities. There can never be too many locations honoring the Medal of Honor.”
Its programs are funded through yet another similarly named foundation, the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, established in 1999.
“Both of those museums, the one in Mount Pleasant and the one in Arlington, Texas, both are not off the ground,” said John Falkenbury, vice president of the Medal of Honor Society. However, because each project has recipients on their boards, “they keep us abreast of what’s going on.”
Falkenbury agrees with Dix that the more opportunities available for Americans to learn about the legacy of the Medal of Honor and its recipients, the better off the country would be.
“These museums ought to be about education, inspiration and patriotism,” he said. “We want to protect the sanctity of the medal itself.”