When the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation was looking at designs for the new museum, architect Moshe Safdie provided one that Bill Phillips, chairman of the foundation’s board, said is “absolutely breathtaking.”
To get that design off the paper and into the world, however, the foundation still needs to raise $100 million to reach the estimated $120 million necessary to start building the new museum in the shadow of the USS Yorktown.
Phillips said a rise in costs of labor and materials forced the foundation to increase the original $100 million estimate.
Phillips said the money will pay for construction and set up endowments to keep the museum running.
“While we have momentum on the fundraising front, it makes sense to build endowments to ensure that the institution is maintained in perpetuity, and so that’s what we’re intent on doing so that we don’t have to, five years down the road, do another effort,” said Mark Updegrove, CEO of the foundation. He said the museum also will garner revenue once it’s built, which will contribute to running the museum.
For the past few years, the foundation had been seeking donations from small individual contributors and midlevel donors, but Phillips and Updegrove are now soliciting donations from wealthy individuals, corporations and larger foundations, such as the Ford Foundation, to bridge the gap.
Phillips is also asking governors from all 50 states to donate “because this (museum) represents the country” and is working with North and South Carolina to persuade them to donate to the museum being built in their backyard.
“To get Carolinians engaged in this we think will benefit everybody, so that’s what we’re intent on doing with this Carolina campaign,” Updegrove said. There’s $4.5 million left in a matching grant from an anonymous former Marine, so a $4.5 million donation from South Carolina would provide $9 million.
Phillips said, though, that the foundation hopes that the museum can be mainly privately funded. He said he wants only 10% to 20% of the funding to come from the government.
“The majority is going to come from the citizens,” he said. “That’s important.”
The Medal of Honor Museum, first proposed in 2013, would be the one of the first museums to honor recipients of the highest military award in the country. Currently, museums dedicated to each branch of the military recognize Medal of Honor recipients from their respective branches, but there’s no one place where every recipient is honored.
“It’s very rare that a national museum is outside of Washington,” Updegrove said. “We get to have it here. So it’ll be a national treasure here in South Carolina.”
The museum, designed by Safdie, will include three buildings connected by bridges: a grass-topped pavilion with the lobby and gift shop, the museum building with eight permanent and two special exhibit galleries, and a 140-seat chapel.
“When you fly over it, you’ll see the star, the iconic star that symbolizes the medal,” Updegrove said. “So I think architecturally, it’ll be a marvel, in addition to the stories that it’ll tell and the education that it will purvey.”
He said the opening date of the museum hinges on the fundraising process, but it could be in 2020 or 2021, three years later than originally planned. Phillips added that they’re working to open the museum as fast as they can so the maximum number of Medal of Honor recipients can be at the opening.
“We’re not going to sacrifice the story or the quality, but we do want this to be completed while there’s a good number of them still alive, particularly the Vietnam era,” Phillips said.
The process to receive the Medal of Honor takes at least three years, Phillips said, and only 71 recipients are still alive, mostly from the Vietnam War.
To be nominated, a member of the military, must go “at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” according to guidelines passed by Congress in 1963, almost 100 years after Abraham Lincoln began awarding the Medal of Honor.
The nomination then goes up the chain of command, being scrutinized at every step, before going to Congress. If the nomination is approved, the president presents the Medal of Honor to the recipient.
“If you read ... some of these citations, it’s mind-boggling,” Phillips said. “Just take the local South Carolinian Kyle Carpenter — the grenade comes in through the window and without hesitation he throws his body on it.”
Carpenter was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2014 after suffering injuries to his arm and face while protecting a fellow Marine from a grenade in 2010.
“We are a country that is as divided as at any time during my lifetime,” Updegrove said. “But this is something that we can all come together around, without question.”
Phillips, getting emotional, said honoring the recipients and their service to the country is one of the reasons he’s so passionate about building the museum, as well as educating youth.
“To be able to take those stories and mold the character of our youth, that’s exciting,” Updegrove said.
Working with Mount Pleasant
There has been controversy over the proposed height of the Medal of Honor Museum, which, at 128 feet, is 78 feet over the height limit for new buildings in Mount Pleasant.
“We’ll be working closely with the town of Mount Pleasant,” Updegrove said. “To be frank, I’m not sure to this point we’ve engaged the township as much as we should, and we’re rectifying that.”
Phillips said that the current design is above the height limit but said the museum’s design should usurp the concerns.
“When you look at the iconic structure of this thing, no one’s going to notice that it’s even 50 feet above a height limit,” he said. Updegrove agreed, comparing the museum’s design to the Sydney Opera House and calling it “the most iconic architectural structure in the Southeast.”
Mount Pleasant town administrator Eric DeMoura said in an email that the town has not yet received plans for the Medal of Honor museum.
When Updegrove was hired as CEO of the foundation in February, half the board members resigned in protest.
“We just didn’t agree with the strategy and some leadership elements that were going on,” retired Marine Maj. Gen. James Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient, said at the time. “The other thing that triggered us is they hired a new CEO, and we didn’t agree with the process of how that process took place in terms of hiring the new CEO of the museum and the outcome.”
Updegrove officially became CEO in March, taking over for Robert Wilburn.
Phillips said it was a “good news, bad news” situation and expressed some frustration about the change.
“It was just that divisive,” he said. “It shouldn’t have been. But it was.”
“A lot of organizations go through turmoil,” Updegrove said. “There were different visions for how this institution should be built. We think we’re on the right road, but the proof will be in the pudding.”
A spokeswoman for the foundation said not all of the members of the board have been replaced, so the foundation currently has a smaller board. However, as the project continues to grow, she said, the foundation expects to continue filling open seats on the board.