Mark your calendars for April 4, 2025, Robin Sarratt told her audience at the Ware Center.
That will be the 233rd anniversary of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens’ birth, and it’s the day LancasterHistory is hoping to open the Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Center for History & Democracy in downtown Lancaster.
The state-of-the-art museum is projected to draw 55,000 visitors a year. It aims both to document the achievements of Stevens and Smith — he as a tenacious crusader for civil rights and public education and a key architect of America’s “Second Founding,” she as a pathbreaking independent Black businesswoman and his close confidant — and to encourage critical engagement with the social issues that are reflected in their lives and link their era to ours: Slavery and its legacy, racism, civil rights, wealth and poverty, opportunity, equity, freedom.
Sarratt is LancasterHistory’s vice president. She and President Tom Ryan outlined the plans and the project’s lengthy history at the Hourglass Foundation’s June First Friday forum.
The center will encompass Stevens’ house and law office in the first block of South Queen Street and the Kleiss Tavern next door. LancasterHistory took over the two properties in 2010 from the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County.
The trust had intervened to save the house and tavern starting in the late 1990s, when they were targeted for demolition to make way for the Lancaster County Convention Center. The turning point came when archeological excavation uncovered cisterns that may have harbored fugitives from Southern slave plantations. Ultimately, the convention center was designed around the two buildings, and the trust supervised a $6 million project that stabilized them and restored their exteriors.
Meanwhile, confirmation of Stevens’ involvement in the Underground Railroad led to the designation of his home and office as a site on the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom.
At the time it acquired the properties, LancasterHistory had just completed a $13 million capital expansion and merged with the foundation managing Wheatland, the home of 15th U.S. President James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln’s predecessor. Thus, it was not in a position to immediately undertake another major project. It was not until 2019 that planning for the Stevens & Smith Center began in earnest.
In the course of planning it, LancasterHistory sought community input and advice from a broad range of local and national experts.
A $250,000 grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services is supporting the creation of a venue and exhibits that will be fully accessible and inclusive — a must for an institution honoring Stevens, who was born with a club foot. Prime Access Consulting is advising on aspects such as ramps, font sizes, tactile QR codes and Braille lettering.
To develop the layout and displays, LancasterHistory retained Ralph Appelbaum Associates, RAA, the world’s largest museum and “narrative environment” design firm. RAA’s credits include the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Museum of African-American History, both in Washington, D.C.
While the center will have some historical reconstructions, it will not be “a traditional house history museum,” Sarratt emphasized. Rather, it will mix displays, artifacts and “immersive media” to engage its audience.
Visitors will enter at the corner of Vine and Queen streets and traverse a glass floor over the cisterns uncovered in 2001. Displays will outline the museum’s key themes and set the stage for what follows.
The center will mix displays and “immersive media” with historical reconstructions. Click images to enlarge. (Source: LancasterHistory)
From there, a sequence of rooms will interweave Stevens’ and Smith’s stories with those of Lancaster County and the United States from the antebellum period onward through the Civil War and Reconstruction. One main area will highlight Stevens’ role in shepherding the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments through Congress and connect that effort to the Civil Rights era and ongoing legal struggles today.
The displays will document Smith’s heroic efforts to keep Stevens alive as his health deteriorated as well as her successful business dealings. The center will not answer the question whether Stevens and Smith had a romantic relationship. The evidence is inconclusive and “frankly, it doesn’t change the story,” Sarratt said, which is that the two were intimately bound up in each other’s lives for years.
The center is envisioned as a major resource for local schools and colleges. Space on the third floor of the Kleiss Tavern is being eyed for community activities, such as an urban archaeology program, to encourage further research, particularly into the history of communities of color, Sarratt said.
The overall project is budgeted at $24 million, which includes $19 million for construction and equipping the space plus a $5 million endowment to support ongoing operations. LancasterHistory has raised $13.1 million so far.
There are synergies with other county and regional historical attractions, not least LancasterHistory’s campus, about 1.5 miles to the west, which includes its local history museum and the Wheatland property.
The nonprofit is working closely with nearby stakeholders, including Southern Market Center and the Lancaster County Convention Center, Ryan said. It anticipates offering package deals as well as discounts on admission for local residents, particularly the faculty and staff at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, founded by its namesake.
The center won’t shy away from juxtaposing President Buchanan’s legacy with Stevens’, Ryan and Sarratt said. The story of the antebellum era can’t be told without examining Buchanan, whose support for the Dred Scott decision and attempts to conciliate Southern slaveholders exacerbated the country’s political divisions and set the stage for the Civil War.
Museums are powerful economic drivers, Sarratt said. The center is projected to add more than $80 million to Lancaster County’s tourism economy over its first five years.
The organization is confident the center will be a compelling regional attraction, and likely a national one. The goal, Sarratt said, is for scholars who visit to come away saying, “They did this right.”