Thursday, November 30, 2000

Organizers display vision for Freedom Center

'The inspiration for the design is the historic struggle for freedom.'

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After years of design work, the public got its first look Wednesday at how the architecture, exhibits and landscaping will come together to convey the message of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

        What has long been only brief descriptions and minimal drawings on paper assumed full form with the unveiling of the center's architectural model.

        “The unveiling ... is a milestone in the Freedom Center's progress,” said President Ed Rigaud.

[photo] A computer-created view of the new center against the Cincinnati skyline.
(Randy Mazzola graphic)
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        “(It) will help our donors and supporters to visualize the reality that a national monument is coming to Cincinnati.”

        Alpha Blackburn, president of Blackburn Architects, the leading firm on the project, described how the power of the Underground Railroad story and the message of the center were infused into the structure and grounds themselves.

        “The inspiration of the design is the historic struggle for freedom,” she said. “In particular, it reflects aspects of the journey of many slaves across the Ohio River and over a challenging landscape.”

        The Freedom Center will be one of four major anchors in the $2 billion Ohio riverfront redevelopment project. The others are Paul Brown Stadium, Great American Ball Park and The Banks, a riverfront housing and entertainment neighborhood.

[photo] Center director John Fleming says the Freedom Center will help bring the community together.
(Brandi Stafford photos)
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        While organizers say they didn't want to shy away from presenting the horrors of slavery, they also want the center to feel inviting.

        That's why the building materials will be a combination of rough-hewn stones and warm, earth-toned metals. The building's colors will be warm, and the 100-foot-tall, undulating stone walls on the exterior will be earthy and heavy, with a sense of permanence.

        It will show that the struggle for freedom is not an easy one, yet it will be an environment in which visitors feel comfortable, Ms. Blackburn said.

        Ms. Blackburn, whose firm has worked on such projects as the Black Cultural Center at Purdue University and the Conseco Field House in Indianapolis, home to the Indiana Pacers, said the Freedom Center project is coming together well.

        “When I see the all-interior core together and the melding of the facility at the site, then I'm going to be satisfied,” she said.

    Location: North bank of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati
    The museum will include:
    • An orientation theater with giant screen
    • The Boeing Flight to Freedom interactive theater, combining live actors, film and special effects. It will recreate the escape experience for museum-goers.
    • A pre-Civil War two-story log slave jail.
    • 325-seat auditorium
    • Cafe
    • 2-acre urban park
    Groundbreaking: 2001 for the parking garage; 2002 for the center.
    Projected opening: Spring 2004.
    Project cost: $90 million to $110 million (about $45 million for building only, excluding exhibits).

        The 158,000-square-foot facility, scheduled to open in the spring of 2004, will have three separate but connected pavilions. The center building represents freedom and the two on either side, courage and cooperation, Ms. Blackburn said.

        “It doesn't look or feel like any other structure,” she said.

        Along with the unveiling of the model came a detailed description of floor plans, including features such as the Welcome Hall, where a historic, pre-Civil War, two-story slave jail will sit. It will be the central icon for the Freedom Center.

        Also included will be the Boeing Flight to Freedom Story Theatre, which will combine film, live actors and special effects to place the visitor in the Underground Railroad story. The audience may participate in a series of interactive experiences designed to recreate the emotions of the escape experience.

[photo] A model of the 158,000-square-foot facility.
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        Two history galleries will accommodate changing programs that will range from kiosks and workstations to mini-theaters and live interpretation.

        The last section, a three-part experience, will bring visitors an understanding of discrimination, slavery in other parts of the world and lessons on perseverance, determination and courage in today's world.

        “This will be a place where the community can come and discuss things like that,” said Dr. John Fleming, director of the Freedom Center.

        The first part of the last section is an electronic polling experience based on various scenarios of freedom and oppression. The second will be a gallery of modern-day images. The third space will consist of tiers of seating for a moderated forum.

        With the design nearly complete and staff working to secure exhibits, the next step for Freedom Center organizers will be the national capital campaign. The center has already raised $60 million of the $90 million it wants to raise.

        A national-awareness advertising campaign could start as early as February. The actual soliciting likely won't start, though, until later in the spring.

        “This signals that it's really going to happen,” Mr. Rigaud said.

- Organizers display vision for Freedom Center
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