Fort Ligonier adds extensive education complex, opens April 29
If only George Washington could see Fort Ligonier now.
From a rough-hewn frontier outpost on the Forbes Road, it’s grown from its humble 1758 beginnings into one of Western Pennsylvania’s premiere historical sites.
The latest addition is a 5,000-square-foot history education complex that will be unveiled to visitors when the fort reopens April 29.
“A lot of people ask, why did you build this center,” says executive director Annie Urban. “Part of the reason we built the center was that we have this overachieving director of education. Every time we turned around, she was getting more kids’ groups here. She started a whole program of teacher workshops.
“We realized that we really didn’t have any function space. We just had the museum and the fort.”
Attached to the existing museum, the center can seat 150 at round tables or 300 in theater-style rows of chairs. There’s a dais at one end, and a wall of windows that faces the garrison.
“As part of this new center, we have state-of-the-art audio visual equipment,” Urban says. “It includes a big screen that drops down. We hit one button and the blinds come down to cover the windows, and the screen comes down, and the lights go off. It’s magical.
“We have all kinds of electrical outlets; you can plug in your laptops — just like when George Washington was here!”
Joking aside, Washington’s presence will be felt in a new gallery devoted to artifacts from the nation’s first president, including a set of 18th-century steel-mounted saddle pistols inlaid with gold and silver, given to Washington by France’s Marquis de Lafayette, and Washington’s handwritten account of his years on the Pennsylvania frontier during the French and Indian War.
The gallery also will have an informational video that Urban says, “will comprehensively tell the story of his early military career and his time at Fort Ligonier.” Noted artist and Ligonier native Chas Fagan will provide an oil painting of the friendly fire incident, when Washington is said to have ridden between two lines of troops who were mistakenly firing at each other.
The museum’s other galleries and gift shop have been reconfigured to accommodate the new construction. Urban says traffic flow through the building also should be improved by creation of an exit separate from the museum lobby.
Not all exhibits will be ready by opening day, Urban says. Installation will continue through the summer. When completed, the lobby will house a video of fort highlights and a reverse timeline exhibit, taking visitors from the present back to the construction of the fort as they proceed into the building.
Urban says the goal of the $8 million project, for which $7.3 million has been raised, is to double the number of visitors in the next two years. Currently the fort averages about 25,000 to 26,000 visitors per year.
To that end, parts of the site now will remain open year-round. While the fort itself will close from mid-November through March, the museum and education space will be open Fridays through Sundays during the winter months, says director of marketing and public relations Julie Donovan. Friday hours also will be extended during the summer.
Learning opportunities for students, teachers, scouts and history buffs and social events like the History Happy Hours and Night at the Fort Museum will go on as usual, while new programming also is being added, says education director Mary Manges.
A redesigned website will launch on Oct. 1.
“On May 26, for the first time, we’re hosting trivia night,” Manges says. “It’s a family event. We’ll do a tour of the fort beforehand and, even if you’re not a history buff, if you pay attention, you just might win.”
CNN political analyst John Avlon will visit on Aug. 31 to discuss and sign copies of his book, “Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations.” Avlon is executive editor of the Daily Beast and served as chief speech writer for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The fort’s signature Musket Ball fundraiser will return Sept. 15, rebranded as the Cannon Ball to reflect all the expansion.
The only thing not getting bigger, Urban says, are admission prices, which will remain the same as last year.
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or [email protected].