KILL DEVIL HILLS – It could be argued that the reopening of the 1960 visitor center at Wright Brothers National Memorial earlier this month reinforces the keys to Orville and Wilbur Wrights’ success: patience and persistence.
Beset for much of its 58-year-existence by a leaking roof and a malfunctioning heating and air conditioning system, the modernist building has survived numerous indignities, including patchwork repairs, defunded rehabilitation and plans to demolish it.
Finally, after a two-year, $5.8 million project, the visitor center has been restored to its original art deco splendor, orange trim and all. Equally notable is the complete – and long overdue – $1.5 million redesign of the museum area and exhibits.
The Flight Room, where the domed ceiling highlights a replica of the famed 1903 Flyer, has also been revamped. The First Flight shrine, photographs of famous aviators that had lined the walls, has been replaced by a video loop featuring important moments in the history of aviation and other displays. The replica of the glider has also been removed in order to showcase the replica Flyer.
“It’s more exacting, more engaging, more relevant,” said Dave Hallac, superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina, while speaking at a press briefing a day before the official reopening on Oct. 20. “Everything is brand new in the building, and it needed it.”
For those familiar with the pre-restoration center, the difference in the new 9,000-square-foot facility is palpable. The exhibit area is appropriately light and airy, with large placards that detail, from writings and historic photographs, the story of the bookish and always-curious Ohio brothers and their family, the Outer Banks residents on whom they depended for help, the science behind their flight experiments and the revolution of flight itself. Artifacts, some original and some reproduced, provide a fascinating peek into the technical genius of the brothers and their relentless drive to solve the mystery of flight.
Numerous quotations in large letters announce the theme or focus as visitors move through the exhibits: “Could twisting be the answer?” and portions of letters the brothers wrote to family members: “We came here for wind and sand, and we have got them.”
“We wanted to bring that active voice into the exhibits,” said supervisory park ranger Jin Prugsawan, adding the goal was to make the area more “contemplative.”
“One thing the exhibits do really well is humanize them,” she said.
The Wright brothers, after writing in 1899 to inquire about the wind, were invited by the Kitty Hawk postmaster to visit the Outer Banks to do their flight experiments. Starting in 1900, the brothers traveled from their home in Dayton, Ohio, first to Kitty Hawk and then Kill Devil Hills to conduct test flights on gliders and later a motorized plane launched from the ground on a rail.
The science of flight is interwoven with the humanity of the brothers and the Outer Bankers who helped them every year.
On Dec. 3, 1903, the brothers accomplished the goal no one had achieved until that famous day: the first heavier-than-air, controlled and manned flight.
Outside the large, clear windows facing the historic flight path, four boulders can be seen that mark each of the four successful flights. The first, at 10:35 a.m., was 12 seconds, the last was 59 seconds. Before the renovation, the view of the flight path was largely blocked.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2001, the building was one of the first Mission 66 visitor centers in the park service, an example of the aesthetic movement known as the Philadelphia School of modern architecture. The 10-year, mid-century Mission 66 program, initiated at the Wright Brothers Memorial, changed the agency’s focus from commemoration to interpretation to enhance the visitor experience.
Prior to the 100th anniversary of flight in 2003, there were plans to tear down the building and replace it with a $17 million center. But the landmark designation forced the $250,000 architectural plan to be ditched.
But the building’s flat roof combined with its dome leaked practically from the beginning, creating constant issues during the frequent Outer Banks storms. Maintenance funds could not keep up with maintenance needs, and by the mid-1990s, the center was blighted by piecemeal repair work.
Numerous attempts to get the building restored fell flat, until the 100th anniversary of the park service in 2016 inspired more funding.
Even with the complete restoration, Hallac, the park superintendent, said as much of the original historic structure as possible was maintained.
“Probably 15 million people have come through this building – so it’s a survivor,” he said. “We’ve brought it back to its original luster.”