Barnum Museum receives $ 500,000 grant for its restoration, more than a decade after a tornado forced it to close


BRIDGEPORT – Restorations to the closed Barnum Museum are still underway, but a federal grant in the amount of $ 500,000 could pick up the pace.

The eponymous museum of famous showman PT Barnum recently announced that it has received a Save America’s Treasures grant from the National Park Service to repair the building’s 79 unique windows.

Kathleen Maher, executive director of the museum, estimated that the current phase could take a year and a half, but that the wait will be worth it.

Among the collections at the Main Street Historical Museum, “the building is the most important artefact,” Maher said.

The Barnum Museum is a repository of letters, rare documents and other artifacts related to the founder of the circus. Built in 1893, the brownstone and terracotta structure was marred by a tornado on June 24, 2010, 12 days before PT Barnum’s 200th anniversary.

More than 20,000 pieces were in place that day and financial damage estimates exceeded $ 6 million. Hurricane Irene and Super Storm Sandy added insult to injury, and COVID-19 further slowed repair.

Maher said the Barnum Museum qualified for the grant as a site of “national significance” listed in the National Register of Historic Places. She submitted a detailed request for federal funds in January which she said stood 4 inches off her desk.

“Each of the 79 windows has been inventoried and each has been insulated to a specification,” Maher said. “Because this is an 1890s house, it’s not as if these windows are out of the inventory belt: every window is different. “

The award, which is a matching grant, aligns with a grant from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development to support restoration and repair work.

In the years since the damage, Maher said the museum had preserved and moved artifacts, carried out forensic studies and reports, and carried out emergency work to stabilize the building. Historic preservation architects and engineers also reconstructed the eastern wall and stabilized the structure’s iconic dome.

“We have amazing, comprehensive designs that really look at everything,” Maher said – from roof repairs, terra cotta tiles and decorative friezes to interior and structural engineering plans.

Along the way, Maher said his team also found “problematic work” done in the 1980s that would be fixed as well.

Each step is reviewed and approved by the state’s historic preservation office, she added, which can speed up the process.

The Barnum Museum operated a People’s United Bank gallery, but mainly pivoted online during the pandemic with enrichment programs and activities, and directed visitors to its digital archives.

At first, COVID-19 did not delay repairs, which were in the design phase, but Maher said public health and supply chain issues, and the resulting rise in costs, “we slowed down by a few months “. And funding has also been strained by the pandemic.

“The tourism industry has not rebounded, so our fundraising has stalled that way,” Maher said.

But the show must go on. At a press conference last week, Bridgeport executives – joined by the PT Barnum family – celebrated the next steps for the local institution.

“Restoring those windows isn’t the most important thing about this award,” said Elinor Biggs, Barnum’s great-great-great-granddaughter. “The most important thing for me is to preserve the legacy of this American icon.”

“I would like us to be more committed to collaborating in any way we can,” said Mayor Joe Ganim, who recalled his own visit to the museum as a child.

“I want to see your work continue so that these doors are reopened for the youth of the City of Bridgeport and beyond to discover this treasure, this gem, this history in the center of Bridgeport for decades to come.” , did he declare.

Meanwhile, a small but committed museum team hopes to make this vision a reality.

“The goal is to create an immersive museum experience, where you can take multiple trips through the museum,” Maher said.

The other goal is to “get people off I-95,” she added. “Bridgeport will be the gateway to New England and the last stop on your way to New York.”

Anything less would not honor PT Barnum, the greatest showman, his fans and family alike.

“He is the author of the attractions industry,” Maher said. “What would he have done?” This is what we have to do.

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