U.S. Marshals Museum unveils new design, on track for 2019 opening

by Aric Mitchell (amitchell@talkbusiness.net) 1,892 views 

Updated rendering of the planned U.S. Marshals Museum under construction in Fort Smith.

There is a scene at the end of the Oscar-winning film High Noon where retired U.S. Marshal Will Kane — having disposed of the bad guys in his last act as a lawman — flings his badge to the ground ready to start over with his new wife.

The star-shaped symbol knifes into the dirt at an angle with the remainder of its points standing skyward. It was this powerful image that served as the design of the U.S. Marshals Museum set to open on Sept. 24, 2019.

“In architecture, there has to be a story to tell. It’s not architecture unless it tells a specific story about time, place, and use,” said Reese Rowland, principal at Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, the Little Rock firm that has worked on the museum design since 2008.

“We’re doing a pretty unique thing with the dirt that we’re taking out of the ground that’s bad soil. We’re leaving it on site and creating two points of the star in berms. It starts from zero on the ground and rises to 15 feet as two points of the star.” In other words, the building’s rooftop appears to be growing up from the earth and will serve as a design “that speaks not only to the past, but the future of the Marshals as well,” Rowland told Talk Business & Politics at an interview during Thursday night’s (July 27) “Meet the Design” presentation from Belle Starr Antiques in downtown Fort Smith.

Rowland continued: “It’s a modern building that looks forward, but also looks west. Historically the launching point of the Marshals out of Fort Smith was right here across the River. And if you look across the Arkansas River, the Oklahoma view is not that different than it was in the 1800s. The channel’s a little wider, a little different, but it hasn’t really been developed, so it’s a similar view to what the Marshals had at that time. We thought it was important since this was the launching point and the Marshals were based here, and that was the Oklahoma Territory, that the building sort of look west with the gateway arch, and we wanted the star to be embedded in the ground at Fort Smith, anchored to this place.”

From Google Earth, Rowland noted, the design will look much the same as it did when the initial eight-month schematic work began in 2008 — a giant star resting alongside the water. But almost a decade and the reality of fundraising have presented Polk Stanley Wilcox with new challenges — namely, staying true to the vision while cutting costs. The original design plan was an estimated $25 million-$26 million structure. When the U.S. Marshals Museum came back to the firm last November, the new figure called for adjustments. “With the changes we made to the building based on the new exhibit experience and what they were able to raise per year projecting that out, we set a target goal of around $16 million for the building.”

Rendering of aerial view of the planned U.S. Marshals Museum in downtown Fort Smith.

That does not count exhibits, or as U.S. Marshals Museum President and CEO Patrick Weeks calls it, “The Experience.” Weeks said The Experience will consist of three permanent galleries, a traveling exhibit gallery, and a “Hall of Honor.”

“Those galleries create the entirety of the guest experience, plus we’ll have the cafe and the retail space. The overall allocation is $12.5 million total for design and production, and the fact that we can have someone like Polk Stanley Wilcox help us get the building to be manageable within our means while we’re still focusing our attention on The Experience is amazing,” Weeks told Talk Business & Politics.

The U.S. Marshals Museum property will sit on the middle of 16 acres – donated by the Robbie Westphal family – with the building clocking in at just over 50,000 square feet.

Among internal changes, Rowland said, would be a “more theatrical or stage setting,” or “a storytelling stage setting where you could go in a dark kind of space and things would light up and talk instead of what we were looking at early on, which was a hands-on, experiential museum that was full of natural light.”

“We stepped back and said, ‘The building we designed seven or eight years ago doesn’t necessarily work with this type of experience. So we need to come back and modify the building design in a way that will also allow us to hit a new budget goal based on the money they’re actually able to raise.”

Rowland continued: “The changes we made are actually going to help the experience when you’re in the exhibits. The (new) roof forms were based on how to bring in light from the north into this space instead of direct sunlight and heat, so those are more complicated roof lines. By doing what we did, we were able to cut money out of the project by removing more of the glass while maintaining all the things the building speaks to with the star image and the approach.”

For Weeks, having to “live within means” has not affected his enjoyment and excitement for the project or the community as a whole. “This community of Fort Smith, the philanthropy in this town, the support from stakeholders and citizens in this town, is amazing. We’re going to blink, and this building is going to be open. Next spring, it’s the foundation and we’ll be starting to build walls. Our expectation at this point in time is that a month before the grand opening, we’ll have a soft opening here and a ribbon cutting.”

Budget reductions aside, after close to a decade of aspirations, the U.S. Marshals Museum will be a reality in a little more than two years with a “temporary certificate of occupancy” at the site coming sometime in “mid-summer 2019.”

“We have a staff of somewhere between 23 and 33 people depending on how I’m able to realistically do the budget,” Weeks said. “We’re going to have to do this math before we open. We might be living out of trailers on the site for a little bit, but the message I have for anybody who asks is that the time is now. This is happening, guys. We might have decisions to make between now and then. Those decisions might be hard ones, might be easy ones. And that’s okay, because we’re going to make decisions. But we’re going to open those doors on September 24, 2019.”