It could take upwards of 10 years and $1.5 million to preserve, renovate and expand the Arlington Historical Museum, and backers of the proposal are counting on the broader community to become engaged in the effort.
“This is a case we take to the Arlington people,” said Cathy Bonneville Hix, president of the Arlington Historical Society. “This county deserves a world-class museum. We have so much of a story to tell.”
The historical society since the early 1960s has operated the museum in what had been the Hume School on Arlington Ridge Road. The building had served elementary-school students from the 1890s to the 1950s.
In recent years, efforts to maintain the facility have struggled to keep up with the needs of a building nearing 130 years of age.
“We’ve been doing a lot of Band-Aid fixing,” Hix said at the society’s May 13 annual meeting.
The organization last year hired a subsidiary of the Arlington-based MTFA architectural group to conduct a feasibility study focused on, first, preserving what now exists, and second, looking at expansion possibilities within the existing footprint.
The report, which landed in early May, is still being digested by the leadership of the historical society. But it suggests that, from a physical and architectural standpoint, there is some good news.
“They believe we have a jewel of a building, and we agree,” said Hix, who on May 13 was re-elected to another term as president of the society.
The challenge to be faced by today’s society membership is not unlike that faced a half-century ago, when the county school system turned over the building for use as a museum.
“The school was basically a mess,” acknowledged Dr. Mark Benbow, a history professor at Marymount University and the Arlington Historical Museum’s volunteer director.
“It had not been used, except for storage, for five years,” said Benbow, who proclaimed it “the school district’s trash heap” for unneeded desks.
The historical society formally took possession of the structure in December 1961 and, after a renovation, opened it to the public in September 1963.
“We’ve been working on it ever since,” said Benbow.
The new preservation report points to a number of pressing issues: replacing or refurbishing windows, addressing water damage, tackling safety and accessibility issues and, ultimately, considering replacement of the HVAC system.
That latter issue will be a cornerstone to the renovation plan if the society moves ahead with opening the second floor of the school building for exhibits. An elevator to get patrons between floors also is contemplated.
“We want everybody to have access to all our exhibit space,” Hix said, noting that adding second-level display space would provide room for more of the roughly 4,000 artifacts in the museum’s collection.
The Arlington Historical Society was shuttered at the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 and has remained closed since, but plans are now in the works to reopen it over the summer.
“If you haven’t been there, you have to come,” Benbow said. “We’re proud to have a museum to tell the story of the county.”
Where the expected $1.5 million for renovation efforts will come from remains a work in progress. The society receives no funding from the county government, and over the years has garnered only limited support from the state government. Society leaders are hoping that a combination of government, business, philanthropic and individual giving might boost the effort.
“A lot of our work will really depend on the fund-raising,” Hix said. “That is really going to determine the trajectory of how we’re going to move through this.”