Ever since the Lancaster County Convention Center was built, a vacant house next door has been silently waiting for its moment to be transformed into a museum and history center celebrating two of Lancaster’s most notable residents.
LancasterHistory, the developer of the Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site at the corner of Queen and Vine streets in downtown Lancaster, recently received $150,000 in grants that will allow the organization to take a step forward.
It’s the first progressive step for the site in the nearly nine years, since LancasterHistory took over development responsibilities for the site from the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County.
The two grants of $75,000 come from the National Endowment for the Humanities on the federal level and the High Foundation locally.
“These are planning grants. That’s kind of key,” LancasterHistory President and CEO Thomas Ryan said. “It’s to plan, not to execute.”
The site is projected to be a museum and scholarship center based around the lives and legacies of Stevens, an abolitionist attorney, congressman and public education advocate, and Smith, the manager of his household and a successful local African American businesswoman in her own right.
Fundraising for the Stevens-Smith project is set to start next year.
Ryan explained that, before money could be raised for the Stevens-Smith site, the expansion of LancasterHistory’s campus next to James Buchanan’s Wheatland, which the organization also operates, had to be completed.
In this planning phase for the historic site, master, interpretive and business plans for the site will be assembled, according to LancasterHistory’s Vice President Robin Sarratt.
The two grants have allowed LancasterHistory to hire Roz Consulting Group of Philadelphia to oversee planning for the project, Ryan said.
The grants also enable LancasterHistory “to gather in this community about 35 stakeholders in the neighborhood where the museum will go,” Ryan said.
Today, residents of the neighborhood, local business people, city officials and representatives of local organizations will meet for the first time to start offering their ideas for the site, and suggest how it might also tell the story of Lancaster’s southeast.
“We want to make sure that local people know that their input is valued,” Ryan said, and that they can “help us guide this museum so it becomes the integral fabric of the community.”
“The second thing that the grants enable us to do is to bring to Lancaster about 16 to 18 scholars from around the country,” Sarratt said, to begin to determine how the site will be historically interpreted.
LancasterHistory will consult with “museum professionals from around the country who are at the top of their game,” Sarratt said, who have experience in interpreting difficult history, such as stories of slavery.
The site could tell visitors a wide variety of stories inspired by the lives of Stevens and Smith, Sarratt and Ryan said, from their connection to the Underground Railroad to single parenthood in the 19th century (Smith raised her sons on her own) to living with a disability (Stevens had a club foot).
The grants will also pay for a fundraising consultant and for a financial business planner to help determine how much money will be needed to develop the site — “at this point, we have no idea,” Ryan said — and to make sure the new museum is sustainable once it’s established.
The Stevens-Smith site has long been stabilized inside, with a fire-suppression system in place, Ryan said.
Sarratt said there is a “cavernous” 10,000-square foot subterranean space that can be used for exhibitions.
Thousands of artifacts excavated during an archaeological dig of the cistern beneath the site are in storage at Franklin & Marshall College, some of which could be exhibited at the site, Ryan said.
The Stevens-Smith site “is really a canvas waiting to be painted on,” Ryan said. “We get to be the painters.”
James Buchanan, wearing a top hat and cape-style overcoat, walks against the cold in front o…