On a frigid morning in the last days of 2010, Gay Vietzke and a small clutch of staffers stood shivering on a small balcony of Fort McHenry's just-constructed visitor center, watching with quiet anticipation as a lone excavator tore into a nondescript brick building nearby. The building, which had for 46 years ushered visitors into Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, crumbled quickly and with little fanfare.
"It was bittersweet, although probably a little sweeter than bitter," says Vietzke, the park's superintendent since 2005. (She also oversees the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson.) "We were so ready. It really was like, 'Wow, we actually did this.' We'd turned the corner and gotten this done."
Vietzke had good reason to feel triumphant—the construction of the new visitor center, which on that day was partially finished, had been more than 40 years in the making. And although she hadn't initiated the process, Vietzke gets credit for carefully guiding the park team's vision from dream to reality.
That it would someday come to fruition was by no means a given when Vietzke arrived six years ago, fresh off a stint as superintendent of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in Oyster Bay, NY. Although a 1968 master plan for Fort McHenry noted the then-new visitor center—built just four years earlier with 250,000 visitors a year in mind—was undersized, a new building had been put off for decades.
However, as the number of visitors reached 650,000 a year, the building's deficiencies became ever more apparent. Not only was it too small, it also lacked handicapped-accessible restrooms, decent staff offices, an adequate gift shop, and the appropriate space to display fragile artifacts.
But with the bicentennial of the War of 1812 just around the corner and staunch support from local and national politicians, "the stars were aligned" for the renovation to finally occur, she says. "Everyone could understand that this was our moment."
Within the park, staffers had already done "an incredible amount of pre-planning," says Vietzke, sitting in her low-key office on the second floor of the new building. Crisp and commanding in her pea-green NPS uniform, she's nonetheless warm and approachable.
"I arrived to a staff that had the perfect attitude," she recalls. "They really believed that a new building would make a difference."
But she'll admit she brought something to the table. "I want to hope that I came with a different set of problem-solving skills," she says. At Sagamore, she'd overseen construction projects and, as a staffer at the park service's then-new Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton, CT, she'd reveled in the task of deciding how the visitor experience should unfold.
Still, developing the $15 million visitor center proved her most "intense" challenge yet: There was the design itself, done with the help of Baltimore architecture firm GWWO, the two years of rigorous NPS review, and the inevitable surprises. On more than one occasion during excavation, Vietzke was forced to evacuate the park after workers unearthed live 15-inch Rodman shells—one of the largest explosive cannon rounds of the Civil War period—which were gingerly dealt with by a U.S. Army bomb squad from Aberdeen Proving Ground. (Federal troops were garrisoned at the fort at that time to keep an eye on Southern-sympathizing Charm City.)
"I can laugh about it now," says Vietzke.
A few weeks after the old visitor center was demolished, Vietzke is beaming as she shows off the new center's features, from the smallest touches—two family restrooms—to the planned interactive displays that will immerse visitors in the history of the fort, the war of 1812, and of course, Francis Scott Key's penning of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Outside, the building is sleek but decidedly understated. That's the point, says Vietzke.
"It's meant to get you ready to see the real thing, but the star-shaped fort is still the star of the show."
For one day though, on March 3, the visitor center will take center stage for its grand opening. Timed with the 80th anniversary of "The Star Spangled Banner's" official declaration as our national anthem, "it will be a celebration for the park, for the city, for the state, and for the National Park Service," says Vietzke. In 2012, Fort McHenry will play a prominent role in the city's war bicentennial celebrations. And in 2014—the bicentennial of the attack on Fort McHenry—the fort will host its own fete. Vietzke also has other things on her wish list—she hopes to one day add a kayak dock and a system of water trails connecting War of 1812 sites. "The future," says Vietzke, "is wide open. It's what we can imagine—and what we can do something about."