Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center reopens

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Once slated for demolition as an outdated eyesore, the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 2001. It was among the first of more than 100 visitor centers built as part of the National Park Service’s “Mission 66” project, which involved constructing the educational spaces prior to the park service’s 50th anniversary in 1966.


By Corinne Saunders

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

KILL DEVIL HILLS — At the Wright Brothers National Memorial, the phrase “history repeating itself” is a positive thing.

After being closed two years for renovations, the memorial’s visitor center in Kill Devil Hills reopened Saturday looking much as it had — at least on the outside — when it was originally completed in 1960. The only apparent difference was a fresh coat of bright orange paint on some indoor and outdoor trim and some concrete walls left uncovered.

When the visitor center first opened 58 years ago, then-superintendent Horace Dough complained about the congestion, blaming it on the memorial’s exhibits being “too interesting,” says Dave Hallac, superintendent of the National Park Service’s OBX group, which includes the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Fort Raleigh in Manteo.

“I have a bad feeling, or maybe a good feeling, that these (new) exhibits will cause congestion as well,” Hallac said. “That’s the pain of our success right now. It’s a good problem to have.”

While the new exhibits appeared to fascinate the 250 attendees on hand for the center’s reopening, the original exhibits still held the most draw.

Mady Nowarah, a fourth-grade student at First Flight Elementary School, exclaimed her favorite was “the big plane!” She was referring to the life-size replica of the Wright’s 1903 flyer.

The flyer, displayed in a circular room with many windows and a domed ceiling, was the focal point of the visitor center before the upgrades, and remains so now.

Ava Lawrenson, a fourth-grader at Nags Head Elementary School, said she enjoyed the flight path markers, which document the actual distances Orville and Wilbur Wright flew. She and her cousin, Evaine Sanchez, ran over to see the markers outside the visitor center before the ceremony.

“We started laughing because all it said on the fourth one was the same thing it said on the other three,” Ava said. The girls had expected something more dramatic than the distance and date for the world’s first successful flight.

Area fourth-graders were the guests of honor at the ceremony, standing on either side of area officials during the ribbon-cutting and allowed entry to the renovated facility first.

Ava’s mom, Misha Lawrenson, said the girls had been looking forward to Saturday’s event.

“Even in the rain, they were excited,” the Kill Devil Hills resident said. “A lot of their friends were here and their fourth-grade teachers were here. It’s nice to come here and see something special happen at a building you pass every day.”

Kelly Tomko, a visitor from Pennsylvania, said she stumbled upon the reopening while trying to plan educational activities for her two sons, who missed a week of school for a wedding and weeklong vacation.

“It’s very well-built in here; we’re very impressed,” she said of the visitor center.

Tomoko’s sons enjoyed the first flight paths and the outdoor tents, where they learned about aviation from the Dare County Radio Control Flyers, the Civil Air Patrol, North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division, Kitty Hawk Kites and other groups. Elizabeth City State University’s Mobile STEM Lab was also onsite for the event.

Kinston-based Group III Management, Inc., completed the $5.8 million renovation of the 9,000-square-foot building. The work included installing new mechanical and electrical systems, electric solar panels, triple-pane windows made to withstand hurricanes and high-tech lighting, audio and security systems, among other improvements, according to a park press release.

Portland, Oregon-based Formations, Inc. completed the $1.5-million exhibit construction project. Hands-on, technology-infused exhibits include a 16-screen video wall featuring photographs of the Wright brothers, quotes and images of flight that change every few seconds.

“It’s truly a facility of technology that will truly inspire the next generation of visitors to this memorial” said Bob Vogel, regional director of the National Park Service’s Southeast Region, which is based in Atlanta, Georgia, and includes 70 parks.

Visitors can learn about the people who helped Orville and Wilbur Wright along their journey, spin small models of the brothers’ first attempts at flyers, move a bicycle’s handlebars to turn a model glider and see small pieces of the flyer that made history on Dec. 17, 1903.

Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong took a small piece of wood from the 1903 Wright Flyer’s propeller and a piece of muslin cloth from its wing to the moon with him, and these tributes are displayed in a small box visitors can open.

“Orville Wright said, ‘We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests — to investigate whatever aroused curiosity,’” Vogel said.

“And therein lies the power of Wright Brothers National Memorial and the other 416 sites that make up the National Park System,” he continued. “They arouse curiosity in our visitors and encourage them to seek a greater understanding of the world around us.”

The visitor center’s reopening originally was slated for Sept. 29, but the threat of Hurricane Florence pushed back the event.

“Hurricane Donna … hit the Wright Brothers Memorial on Sept. 12, 1960, canceling the original contractor’s plans for their final inspection,” Hallac said. “So as Bob and others have mentioned, history does repeat itself.”

The Wright Brothers National Memorial is located at 1000 North Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills. The memorial and visitor center are open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on Christmas Day. The cost of a seven-day pass is $10 for adults, free for persons 15 and younger. A season pass, good for 12 months, is available for $35 and can be used to admit four adults, including the passholder.