Sunday, May 4, 2003

Freedom Center building challenges overcome

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Despite challenges posed by a cold, snowy winter, construction of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is 25 percent complete, and it remains on schedule and within budget, officials say.

Exterior walls will be made of travertine stone from Tivoli, Italy - the same kind of stone used in the Colosseum in Rome.
(Tony Jones photo)
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"We're feeling terrific about this project right now," project manager Jerry Warren said Saturday during a site tour for news media. Warren is an engineering construction manager on loan to the Freedom Center from Procter & Gamble.

When it opens in the summer of 2004, the $110 million Freedom Center will be the largest museum in the country dedicated to the secret movement of slaves north to freedom in the years leading to the Civil War. It's the centerpiece of Cincinnati's revitalized riverfront.

Among the signs that steady progress is being made since ground was broken June 17, 2002:

With a 30-foot ceiling, the second floor of the "Central Building" will have a circular staircase through the center.
(Tony Jones photo)
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• The massive tower crane that rises from the project will be dismantled beginning next week. That's an important milestone, because its removal will pave the way for Hamilton County to open parking garages under the Freedom Center.

• A "topping off" celebration is set for May 15. That will mark the completion of the major structural concrete and structural steel work.

• Installation of travertine stone, imported from a quarry in Tivoli, Italy, will begin on the building's exterior in about two weeks. "Maybe near the end of June, there will be enough stone up that people will say, 'Wow!' " Warren said. "It's the same type of stone that was used on the Roman Colosseum," which was completed in 80 A.D.

The only other U.S. museum that features the stone is the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, he said.

The tan-colored stone was chosen because its rough appearance mirrors the hardships faced by escaping slaves, said Gary Bockelman, the Freedom Center's chief financial officer. The stone will be installed on the east and west faces of all three of the center's buildings, or pavilions. It will complement the copper panels - already being installed - that form the facade on the structure's north and south faces.

Opens: Summer 2004
Size: 158,000 square feet.
Architect: Blackburn Architects with BOORA Architects.
Construction team: Megen, Dugan & Meyers, Brown LLC
Features: Three interconnected buildings, wide expanses of glass to reinforce views north and south, 35,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 325-seat theater, a cafe and an 8,000-square-foot Welcome Hall.
Project cost: $110 million, of which $80 million is for building construction and exhibits. About $91 million has been raised.
Although it's still early in the construction process, there's no mistaking the appeal of certain features, including a partially built grand staircase that will spiral through the central pavilion. Also, the view of the Ohio River, Roebling Suspension Bridge, and Northern Kentucky through glass walls on the south side of the Freedom Center will be striking.

"This is an engineer's dream to be involved in this kind of project," Warren said.

About 113 construction workers are on the job each day. That number is expected to peak at 125 by fall.

Warren lauded the project's safety record, noting the injury rate to date is 12 percent better than the industry average.

Four "recordable" injuries - requiring assistance beyond first aid - have occurred. Most were relatively minor, Warren said. The most serious injury was a couple of weeks ago when a worker fell about 17 feet down an air shaft, landed on his back, and cracked a vertebra. The worker is expected to recover, Warren said.

Freedom Center officials have emphasized that the building will not house a traditional museum. It will have exhibits and tell the story of escaping slaves, but it will also use lessons from that period of history and apply them to modern-day freedom issues.


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