Nestled between New Orleans’ famous French Quarter and Garden District is the Warehouse District. In an area that once housed an old beer factory, a 300,000 square-foot museum of national and local importance is unfolding. Conceived and built in stages, the National World War II Museum offers visitors a multi-sensory experience that goes beyond viewing artifacts. Everywhere you look, you are soothed by the presence of cumaru (Dipteryx odorata), a Brazilian hardwood.
“Visiting the museum is an intimate, emotional experience, where you learn with your head and your heart. You are inspired by what this grand republic can achieve when we work together,” says Academy award-winning actor Tom Hanks, who serves as the honorary chair of the museum’s capital campaign. “Our mission is urgent. We are losing WWII veterans everyday. Their stories form a foundation that is valuable for learning and sharing. This was the dream of Steve Ambrose. He wanted the lessons and the stories of the generation that fought the war, on the home-front and on the battle-front, preserved for all future generations.”
To provide some emotional respite from the heavy subject matter of war, the National World War II Museum also built a restaurant (recently named the second best in New Orleans) and a USO-style entertainment canteen. All venues utilize cumaru as a primary surface finish because the wood is durable, attractive and provides a period-appropriate aesthetic.
Famed historian Dr. Stephen E. Ambrose was the official biographer of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. According to Bob Farnsworth, senior vice president of Capital Programs for the National WWII Museum, it was during an interview that Eisenhower learned Ambrose lived and worked in New Orleans, Louisiana. “Do you know Andy Higgins?” the President asked Ambrose. “No, I don’t,” Ambrose replied. “That’s too bad,” said Eisenhower, “because he is the man that won the war for us.” While Andrew Jackson Higgins did not personally win WWII, his New Orleans-based company designed and built the landing crafts that made the D-Day invasions possible. (Read more about the use of exotic wood in the construction of Higgins boats and modern day water crafts on page 16.)
Many years later in 1991 Ambrose and his good friend, current National WWII Museum president, Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller were sitting in Ambrose’s backyard. They came up with the idea to build a D-Day museum as a tribute to the brave men and women who made the amphibious invasions in Europe, Africa and the Pacific theaters successful. They chose New Orleans as the location to pay homage to Higgins. On the 56th anniversary of the Normandy invasion that liberated Europe, June 6, 2000, the National D-Day museum opened. Early fundraising efforts quickly caught the attention of many influential people, from governors and senators, to Tom Hanks and Tom Brokaw. It became clear that there was a driving interest to create a museum that told the entire story of WWII. In 2003 the D-Day Museum received the congressional designation as the National World War II Museum, and with it, an opportunity to create a tribute of grander scale.
“My friend, historian Stephen E. Ambrose, imbued this museum with his deep regard for the citizen soldier, for the men and women who went halfway around the world, not to conquer, but to liberate. He understood that America’s gift of democracy was an act unparalleled in the course of human history,” says Hanks.
Designing a Legacy
The National World War II Museum has been described by a veteran from the USS Indianapolis as, “A place where you come to feel the greatness of America.” An international competition was launched to find the right design firm for the job. Voorsanger Architects of New York City won the project, working in conjunction with local firm Mathes Brierre Architects and renowned exhibit designers Gallagher & Associates. Principal Bart Voorsanger, himself an army veteran, invited a WWII veteran Lt. Commander who stormed the beaches of Normandy, to meet with the design team and convey the appropriate tone for the project. “This could not be designed intellectually,” says Voorsanger. “There had to be an emotional component, a commitment.”
“How do you tell the story of WWII in terms of architecture? What we didn’t want was a neutral, minimalistic container. That’s fine for art museums, but we wanted an architecture of visual strength, yet it could not be intimidating,” says Voorsanger. Large pre-cast concrete panels and ribbed metal are prominent features of the exterior that carry into the museum. To temper the effect, cumaru flooring and decking flows through public spaces, in both interior and exterior applications. “It is strong, without making visitors feel subordinated. The fine-grained wood humanizes the spaces,” says Voorsanger.
Cumaru Completes the Scene
The National WWII Museum will eventually include five pavilions built around a central parade ground that tell the story of the war from the events that led to United States involvement, through post-war liberation. The first phase of the expansion finished in 2009 with the Solomon Victory Theatre, American Sector restaurant and Stage Door Canteen. Since completion of the first phase, visitation has doubled, far exceeding projections. “About 80 percent of visitors come from outside the region,” says Farnsworth, “and about a third of them come to the city specifically for the museum. It has become a cultural destination.”
The Solomon Victory Theater mixes immersive theatrics, digital effects and star power to convey the authentic epic of WWII in Beyond All Boundaries, a film produced by Tom Hanks. This 4-D experience is designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. It includes a 120-foot scrim, life-sized props and atmospherics (like feeling tanks rumble), in addition to traditional film and sound effects.
After an emotionally-charged viewing, visitors can head over to the American Sector restaurant to decompress. Acclaimed chef (and former marine) John Besh offers a menu that honors the food of the Greatest Generation with a contemporary twist on old favorites. Housemade bologna with spicy chow-chow, anyone? Diners enjoy a relaxing atmosphere that is at the same time upscale and down home. “The cumaru flows from the deck where there is patio seating into the restaurant,” says Voorsanger. “Natural wood is used in a most spectacular way in the bar. The ceiling has this perforated, stainless steel screen that is suspended between cumaru veneered fins. There is this dialect between the steel mesh and the cumaru that reinforces both. It is really quite beautiful, with a very natural feeling.”
The Stage Door Canteen is an entertainment and dining venue created by exhibition design firm Gallagher & Associates to bring the memorable traditions of war-time diversions to life. Patterned after the original Canteens where Bette Davis served desserts and Red Skelton told jokes to GI’s headed off to war, the National WWII Museum’s venue also features live entertainment of the era. Cumaru was also specified for the stage and flooring in the venue, which features live jazz, swing dancing, comedy and musical theater of yesteryear. “Our wood flooring selections are based on durability, cost, aesthetic coordination and environmental sustainability,” says Todd Kinser, senior project manager for Gallagher Associates. “For this project, we felt the quality and look of the cumaru worked well with the design intent and function of the space.”
We’fre All In This Together
Although Stephen Ambrose (1936-2002) would not live to see his vision for a National World War II Museum come to life, he started a campaign to teach future generations the true cost of liberty, so that it would never be forgotten. “People came together – black and white, old and young, men and women – to propel the war effort. They believed that, as a popular saying of the times had it, ‘we’re all in this together.’ Their sense of duty, of right and wrong, their teamwork and their courage embody the American spirit. The National D-Day Museum celebrates the American spirit. Since 1945, democracy and freedom have been on the march. But visitors will learn not just of what we have done, they will learn of what we can do. They will learn that we are still in this together.”
An imported wood used as the foundation for a quintessential American experience is just another way the museum successfully conveys that message of unity.
“Our wood flooring selections are based on durability, cost, aesthetic coordination and environmental sustainability. For this project we felt the quality and look of the cumaru worked well with the design intent and function of the space.” Todd Kinser, senior project manager, Gallagher Associates