Skip to main content
In depth

Themed Entertainment: America’s Premier Civil War Attraction

USS monitor civil war visitor attraction

When John Ericsson designed the USS Monitor, the first true ironclad warship, he sketched a new course for naval development worldwide. The Monitor was completed in less than 100 days, at Gosport Naval Yard in Portsmouth, VA, during the Civil War.

Launched in January 1862, she helped bring about the Union victory. Fast-forward about a century and a half: The $30 million USS Monitor Center, built to showcase the salvaged ship and tell her story, is steering a venerable educational institution toward its own fresh successes. This new, 63, 500 square-foot wing of the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA, is being billed as America’s premier Civil War attraction. It was designed by James River Architects and opened March 9, 2007, on the 145th anniversary of the historic Battle of Hampton Roads, which pitted the USS Monitor against the Confederate CSS Virginia.

By Judith Rubin

In 1987, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is part of the US Chamber of Commerce, designated the Mariners’ Museum as repository for artifacts and archives from the USS Monitor. Later, as a partner in the creation of the Monitor Center, NOAA provided $9.5 million of the center’s budget. $20 million of that budget is in public funds, including $5.5 million from the City of Newport News, and some $2.5 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia. The remaining $10 million was raised in private contributions.

The USS Monitor had a very brief career in comparison to her longstanding impact on vessels of defense. The ship sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, NC on Dec 31, 1862. In 1973, the wreck site was discovered. The submerged, encrusted remains were protected and studied by NOAA which in the late 1990s, realizing that those remains were deteriorating rapidly, began recovery efforts.

Newport News is a military and shipbuilding town in central Virginia, not far from the historic battle location at Hampton Roads. The Mariners’ Museum, founded in 1930, is said to be the largest maritime museum in the US, with a formidable collection, and now, the great ship Monitor. Situated on all of 550 acres (with a lake), the museum enjoys a large, supportive community of experts, historians and enthusiasts.

A fine creative team worked long and hard to turn out a multimedia experience that reportedly is getting high marks from even the most exacting “War Between the States” enactors and rivet-counters. DMCD was responsible for overall exhibit design and was on the project for more than two years. (This New York-based design firm recently closed its doors when the principals retired after some 40 years in business.) Len Soccolich (now senior exhibit designer at Evidence Design, Brooklyn) was lead project designer on the Monitor Center for DMCD. Building on DMCD’s work and carrying it through to opening day was independent designer David Lenk, with the museum in the project manager role. Lenk is now with Capitol Exhibit Services Inc., which provided casework and other services during installation. Lighting designer Available Light’s team was headed by Steven Rosen, IALD, Principal-in-Charge, with Matt Zelkowitz, LC, Associate IALD, Senior Designer & Project Manager, and Donald Christensen, Assistant Designer. Tom Guidas of Guiding Media provided AV design and integration throughout the exhibit space and its three theaters. Media producers were Batwin+Robin (introductory sequence), Pyramid Studios (Battle Theater and some interactives and story stations), and Two Rivers Studio (Recovery Theater and numerous interactives and story stations).

Prominent on the museum team were curator Anna Holloway, John Cannup – Director of Real Estate & Planning, Claudia Jew – Director of Photography & Licensing, Jeff Johnston – Program Historian with NOAA, Jeanne Willoz-Egnor – Director of Collections Management, Priscilla Hauger – Director of Exhibition Production and her staff Ralph Ryan, Chris Voll, Pat Simpson, Dave Merrill, plus technician Marc Marsocci.

The Turret Motif

“You look at the Monitor now and think ‘submarine, ’ says Len Soccolich, “but from the point of view of someone living in the 19th century, ships rode on the water – not underwater. It was a unique vessel and we wanted to convey that.”

The USS Monitor was in her day a most advanced steam-powered marine craft. The ship’s screw propeller (instead of a paddle wheel) – one of Swedish-born designer Ericsson’s 100 patents – made her less vulnerable to gunfire, able to sit lower in the water than a wooden sailing ship, and relatively fast. The balanced rudder aft of the propeller provided unprecedented maneuverability. And the Monitor introduced the first marine “head” – flush toilets for use below the waterline. Her star feature was the rotating gun turret which made it possible to fire in any direction without repositioning the boat.

The ship’s turret is the center’s motif. It was recovered intact but is expected to spend another 20-plus years in its tank in the 17, 000 Batten Conservation Laboratory Complex portion of the center, where it is undergoing an electrolytic reduction process to remove encrustations and chloride compounds. It can be viewed from the catwalk outside the lab, through windows and video monitors. Eventually the turret will take up residence in the Large Artifact Gallery, where piece by piece, the original ship will be reassembled as the parts are stabilized. Other artifacts in this category include two Dahlgren cannon and the steam engine. “The turret is the main artifact, but we knew it wouldn’t be there on opening day, ” said Soccolich. “We had to leave a space that will ultimately hold the real turret, but interpret it for visitors now.”

The turret is interpreted multiple times. An upside-down, encrusted version in the Large Artifact Gallery, enhanced with sounds of dripping water, was provided by fabricator Zibits to show it as when first recovered from the depths. In the same vast, glass-walled gallery is an as-new-built cutaway fabrication, a remarkable re-creation done by the museum’s in-house team following Ericsson’s original plans. The turret appears yet again on the museum grounds on the other side of the gallery glass, atop the actual-size recreation of the ship built by Northrop Grumman. It is further evoked in the cylinder shape and props of the Battle Theater, and in the spider-like custom steel structure that gripped the original turret and hauled it from the Atlantic Ocean, and now sits outdoors in the courtyard as a sort of industrial gazebo. “You get turret mania, ” said David Lenk.

The Monitor Capsizes

Another primal artifact is the Monitor’s signal light – the kerosene lantern that was the last visible sign of her the night she went down was also the first artifact recovered by NOAA. Appropriately, it has its own small gallery (the space is somewhat turret-shaped). Available Light used Fiberstars fiberoptic lighting recessed into the floor to create a scalloped effect on the walls. Inside the lantern itself, a fiberoptic illuminator on a dimmer is programmed to flicker gently.

Prior to the lantern display, visitors pass through a 10-minute introductory sequence for which Batwin+Robin produced the media, beginning with the Intro Theater. Standing in this simple, pocket theater, roughly triangle shaped and lined on all sides, top to bottom with curved tension-fabric panels that suggest waves and partly conceal the lighting fixtures, visitors take in an overview of the Monitor’s demise, shown in standard-def video from three PLC-XF35 Sanyo projectors. The fabric panels were provided by Transformit. Three of them serve as screens and they all pick up the vivid washes of color from the 40 Color Kinetics Color Blast 6 fixtures powered by 10 Color Kinetics PDS-150e units. “All the panels use the same fabric, ” says Steven Rosen. “We needed something translucent enough for light to come through but that would have enough gain for the video projection.” An Alcorn McBride Digital Binloop supplies video, and audio to a Stewart amplifier DA-70 series. There are five JBL Control 23 speakers in the theater. Working to DMCD’s concept, Batwin+Robin used a combination of CGI, original footage and stock footage. Executive producer was Robin Silvestri.

Visitors next encounter a model of the shipwreck underwater, set into the floor under glass. Available Light created a sonar light effect beneath the glass by combining a High End Systems Technobeam with several Color Kinetics I-Flex units. On the wall above, a 60-inch Samsung PPM63M5HB plasma screen displays the Sonar Audio Discovery Video of interviews with people in the recovery effort. It plays back on a Alcorn McBride Digital Binloop.

A series of themed galleries and interactives relate the backstory of naval architecture of the time, the Civil War, leading up to the decision to build the Monitor and introducing some of the issues and individual players. Around a corner, the setting shifts to a recreated dock at the Gosport Naval Yard. On one side of the walkway is represented, large as life, a traditional wooden warship of the time complete with extruding cannons. On the other side, the Monitor is in the process of being built. Two cast figures are climbing over it. Visitors can walk around and into the ship. Ambient audio supplies the sounds of shipbuilding, stored on three Alcorn McBride 8-Traxx MP3 players and emitted by JBL Control 23s run by Stewart amps. About 25 of these speakers are dedicated to ambient audio through the building.

Hampton Roads: Battle Theater

The 20-seat Battle Theater comes about the midpoint of the visitor experience and tells the story of the Battle of Hampton Roads. Richmond-based Pyramid Studios, headed by Bruce Hornstein, produced the 16-minute Ironclad Glory. In this cinema-in-the-round, the seats swivel so that each audience member in the 35-foot diameter space can check out all the action on the nine screens. The visuals are delivered in ultra-high-def video by three PLC-XF35 Sanyo projectors on three front projection screens 7 ft tall and 91/2 feet wide with supporting material on six 63” Clarity rear projection units, model SN-6010-720. The battle story is told chronologically. “It’sUSS monitor civil war visitor attraction complicated but at least it all happened in one place, in that harbor, ” said Hornstein, who cooperated closely with historian John Quarstein, curator Anna Holloway and NOAA specialist Jeff Johnston. “There is a trove of written records, ” said Hornstein. “Observers were documenting it from minute to minute. You can quote people with some confidence and bring them to life.”

Rather than reproduce existing imagery, Pyramid created a series of original stills. “The visual historical record is very inconsistent, with all kinds of styles and things done after the fact, ” said Hornstein, whose background in multi-image formats coupled with the versatile Watchout platform delivered plenty of cinematic power within budget parameters. To plot the story they created physical models of all the ships, built a large 10-foot square map of Hampton Roads and moved the tiny replica vessels around on the map. Detailed computer models were created and positioned in a Photoshop version.

“Next was the fun part – camera angles, ” said Hornstein. “We produced heavily detailed storyboards with close-ups, wide angles, aerials and dissolves.” Each shot was finished incrementally with JPEG files going back and forth between Pyramid and Andy Simmons, the stills artist in England, and the client approval channels. “Andy would render and texture map them, then they’d go to the client who would help us with the frame-by-frame battle continuity, ” said Hornstein. “Then Andy would get it back and start adding smoke, firing, water, damage, reflections. That would go through more approvals. It was about an 18-month process.” Character close-ups were based on live-action stills of costumed actors set up and photographed at Pyramid. “Since we weren’t filming, the wardrobe details didn’t have to be perfect – we could touch up anything, ” notes Hornstein. An original soundtrack was created by Richmonder Eric Heiberg.

“I bought my Watchout rig in 2004, and it has revolutionized the way we do things, ” says Hornstein. “Last year, five or six projects all came due within 90 days of each other. I was able to juggle tasks easily using Watchout. It’s because of how easily you can program – and because it involves fewer and fewer people between your original idea and your final show. We have a full-blown Avid suite here, but I never got into editing video. Watchout put me back into hands-on design and programming. It allows a smaller company to have huge ideas.”

The lighting effects package here includes Precision Projection System Inc. Wave Lights cued to add a water effect and six Lumiere Walkovers set into the floor around the perimeter and retrofitted with Lamina Ceramic LED arrays to provide strobes. “We wanted something long-lasting and not a regular strobe, ” says Steven Rosen, “so we used LEDs because they last a super-duper long time, and provide instant on/off.” The effect of a cannon firing overhead is created with Source Four Pars and Diversitronic Strobes on the mezzanine overhead, visible through a grate. One of the pars is mounted to a cannon assembly that swings back and forth. Also attached to the moving arm is a theatrical spotlight so that the shadow moves with it.

An Entertainment Technology Marquee Control System is an important electronic brain of this operation, as Rosen explained. “Everything – including the sonar effect, the flickering light in the lantern and all the general lighting in the museum and the three theaters – is controlled by the single computer which is the Marquee system.” To make it simpler for the operator they sought to centralize all the controls to a single system. “We needed some things even the Marquee didn’t have, ” observed Rosen. So Marquee customized it for them – a controller that handles two streams of SMPTE timecode at once, one for the Intro theater and one for the Battle theater. (The Turret Recovery Theater, discussed below, does not use SMPTE code – its Alcorn McBride components send RS-232 protocol commands to the Marquee.) “Horizon control makes the software and ET makes the box, ” says Rosen. “In addition to all that control the machine has an astronomical timeclock.”

 The Battle Theater has its own adjoining control area, set up by Tom Guidas of Guiding Media with three racks of equipment, primarily 10 Watchout servers connected via Ethernet IP. Guiding Media also handled the theater’s sound system, which has 12 audio channels and two subwoofer channels, and 13 JBL Control 23 speakers. “It’s a good sounding speaker, ” says Guidas, “compact and rugged with a very easy mounting system included, in which the captive screw is hidden from the general public, away from prying fingers.”

Turret Recovery Theater, Interactives and Story Stations

In this 35-seat theater located at one end of the Large Artifact Gallery, a documentary narrated by Sam Waterston imparts some idea of the elaborate and adventurous process of bringing the Monitor up piece by piece from where she rests 240 feet beneath the Atlantic and subject to the same fierce underwater currents that sank her in the first place. Two Rivers Studios combed through miles of footage captured in a variety of formats, wrote the script, provided the soundtrack and collaborated on the theater configuration. A voting mechanism allows viewers to make content selections at certain points in the show. It is presented in high-definition video with a single Sanyo PLV-HD10 projector.

The playback unit is an Alcorn McBride Digital Video Machine HD. The system also includes a Marantz SR 5600 AV surround receiver and Mackie HRS120 power amplifier hi-res powered subwoofer. The 6.5-foot-high screen is eleven feet wide.

Lighting effects happen in the Recovery Theater with the assistance of four Phoenix Par56 Spots, several Precision Projection System Inc. Wave Lights, a pair of coolsafetyproducts.com Yellow Police Beacons and four Metalux Industrial Fixtures.
Two Rivers produced some dozen personal story stations that are installed at various points in the center. These present individuals both historic and contemporary who are part of the Monitor story. They are narrated by actors in costume and include touchscreen features to call up supplementary information. All are presented on vertically oriented 42 inch Panasonic plasma screens. These run in Quicktime video: they were edited in Final cut Pro in HD (1080i), programmed in Adobe Director with a Flash interface and exported to Quicktime.

 Two Rivers also created a popular interactive that runs on a pair of PCs and allows guests to try their hand at being ironclad warship designers. The Two Rivers team included partners Mary Kay Sizemore and Tim Ivy, graphic designer/programmer Sara Belmont and scriptwriter Brent Holliday. The interactive was programmed in Adobe Director and animated in Flash.

Northrop Grumman Builds the Monitor

The full-scale replica of the Monitor that sits outside the Large Artifact Gallery is called “The Evocation.” It amounts to an in-kind donation of some $1 million from a company more likely to turn out an aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine than a Civil War relic. However, it proved a valuable opportunity for Northrop Grumman’s busy apprenticeship program, which actively recruits from all over the country.

The Evocation is 173 feet long, 41 feet four inches wide, and her height from keel to deck is 10 feet four inches. Her keel weighs 18 tons. She was built in 22 welded steel sections made from Navy-donated materials – as opposed to the riveted iron plates of the original, but otherwise faithful to the original design. “The museum approached us, ” said  Northrop Grumman Craft Instructor Danny Engle, who oversaw the job with Apprentice School Training Administrator Larry Koeck, and Tom Clark, director of the Newport News Shipyard, “and we felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime project.” It was fabricated in modular units that were trucked to the site and lifted into place by crane. Hampton Roads Crane and Rigging donated cranework.

Overall about 250 people were involved in The Evocation, including some 150 apprentices and apprentice graduates. The finished product is very popular with museum visitors who can walk onto the deck and below. It does not include the engine room but does have the full shell, with anchor, propellers, turret, armor belt and bolt heads to simulate the rivets. There’s even a buy-a-bolt fundraiser going on. The only visible departure from the original was to construct the pilot house of steel instead of wood, to weather the elements. The process took about two years altogether, including pre-construction. “We gave ourselves a luxurious schedule, ” says Engle. “If necessary, 90 days wouldn’t have been a problem.”


This artice is published with the kind permission of and first appeared in
Lighting & Sound America, www.lightingandsoundamerica.com , www.plasa.org

Search for something

More from this author

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update