Fort McHenry opens new Visitor and Education Center

After nearly 200 years, Francis Scott Key has come back to Fort McHenry.

A life-sized bronze statue of the Maryland lawyer who wrote "The Star Spangled Banner" stands in the $15 million Visitor and Education Center that opens Thursday. Other elements include a film told from Key's perspective and touch-screen panels providing details about his life and views.

It's a fitting tribute to man whose words help draw about 650,000 visitors a year to the site of the 1814 Battle of Baltimore at the tip of Locust Point, said Vincent Vaise, chief of interpretation for Fort McHenry. And it's more fitting for the focus to be on Key than on Dr. William Beanes, a lesser-known figure who nonetheless became a narrative thread in the old visitor center, he said.

"There are many forts up and down the East Coast, but only one is the birthplace of the national anthem," Vaise said. "Without Key writing the 'Star Spangled Banner,' this would be a condominium complex."

The opening of the two-story, eco-friendly visitor center at Fort McHenry marks the culmination of a decades-long effort to replace a 1960s-era visitor center with a larger facility that's better suited to tell the fort's story and accommodate the crowds that make it one of Maryland's biggest tourist attractions.

Thursday also marks the 80th anniversary designation by Congress of "The Star Spangled Banner" as the national anthem, and the occasion is being marked with a 6 p.m. ceremony that's open to the public with cannon fire and fireworks. For the next three and a half months, the center will also display Key's original draft of the poem — on loan from the Maryland Historical Society.

At time same time, state officials are planning to kick off a multi-year commemoration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 and Maryland's role in it, including the defense of Fort McHenry.

U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin said the fort's new visitor center "will ensure that future generations of Americans will know about the historic battle that took place here and resulted in the writing of our national anthem."

Built between 1798 and 1802 as part of the nation's defense against invaders, Fort McHenry withstood heavy shelling by a British fleet in September 1814, inspiring civilian attorney Key to write his poem. It was the only battle at the fort.

The original visitor center, demolished in December, opened in 1964. Designed to accommodate only 150,000 visitors a year, it had been considered obsolete and undersized for years. Now some fort stewards are projecting that annual attendance could rise to 1 million visitors or more.

The replacement is a two-story "green" building that contains offices and meeting space for the park rangers, a gift shop and a library. Environmentally friendly features include recycled brick, low-flush toilets, and a geothermal system to heat and cool the building. Fort Superintendent Gay Vietzke said it's consistent with the National Park Service's mission is "to teach stewardship of the earth, our heritage and our community."

Much of the first level is a museum-quality interpretative center where visitors can learn about the fort through graphics, interactive exhibits, artifacts and a newly created film.

Also on display are cannon balls recovered from the waters off Locust Point, a cannon dating from the early 1800s, and uniforms worn by soldiers at the time. Maryland artist William Duff sculpted the Key statue.

Alan Reed of GWWO Architects in Baltimore, which designed the building, said the center's two curved walls, one of brick and one of zinc, symbolize the red and white stripes of the American flag. The curves are meant to suggest the furling of a flag, he said.

"There are multiple layers of meaning throughout the building. It's meant to have a dialogue with the fort," Reed said.

The new film, presented on a large screen at the center, tells viewers about the War of 1812 and Baltimore's role. At the end, the giant screen slowly rises like a curtain to reveal a sweeping view of the fort with the American flag flying in the center, suggesting the way Key saw it "by the dawn's early light."

The exhibit space is divided into three galleries that focus on different subjects: the causes of the War of 1812, the moment when Key was inspired to write "The Star Spangled Banner," and how the anthem and flag together became powerful symbols of "the spirit of the American people."

Key is the subject of the largest gallery and the key to understanding the larger story. Visitors can study his handwriting and see how he changed words in early drafts of his poem. For example, the first line was originally "Oh say can you see through the dawn's early light," not "by the dawn's early light."

Visitors to the new center also can hear 10 different versions of the song, from the Duke Ellington Orchestra's to the way Jimi Hendrix played it at Woodstock. (Though infamous renditions by Rosanne Barr or Christine Aguilera aren't featured.)

Vietzke said the park service chose to put a greater spotlight on Key because it was a good way to put a human face on history, and because visitors have long said there wasn't enough information about Key in the old center.

"We had a lot of feedback from the staff and public that that was really missing," Vietzke said. "That is why this place is preserved. It inspired Key."

Key was born in Frederick, educated at St. John's College in Annapolis, and worked in Washington and Baltimore. There is no evidence that he ever visited Fort McHenry after the 1814 battle he witnessed, Vaise said.

Strategically placed at the tip of the Locust Point peninsula, the star-shaped fort was named for James McHenry, a Baltimore resident who was secretary of war under Presidents George Washington and John Adams. It served as a fort until 1912 and became a national park in 1925. Fort McHenry was designated a national monument and historic shrine in 1939 — the only park in the country to have that double distinction.

Construction of the new visitor center began in 2009. Money to build the 17,655-square-foot center came from a variety of sources, including an $11 million federal grant and money from private donors. Vietzke said the fort has plans to upgrade exhibits inside the fort by June 2012.

Admission to the visitor center and grounds is always free. There is a charge for adults who want to tour the fort itself. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer.

Key's manuscript will be on loan until Flag Day, June 14. After that, the fort is planning to bring in other artifacts, including a slightly newer manuscript of Key's poem from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Fort stewards note the irony of using a British company — Haley Sharpe Design of Leicester, England — to design the exhibits that tell the fort's story. "We made sure that the Americans still won the battle, though," Vaise said.