American Military Museum in Charleston loses lease; thousands of items at risk
The personal effects of a man killed on D-Day. The uniform of a Buffalo soldier who roamed the Midwestern plains. A rare floppy cap from the Spanish-American War.
These and thousands of other objects from America’s military past could soon disappear from view in Charleston, possibly forever.
One of the city’s most enduring museums has lost its lease, leaving its operators with no place to go. The biggest fear for curators of the American Military Museum is what to do about the collection’s thousands of artifacts, some of which date back to the American Revolution.
“Once the doors are closed, there’s no income,” said Randi Meagher, executive director.
Last month, the museum was informed by landlord Rivers Enterprises that its lease for space in Aquarium Wharf, next to the S.C. Aquarium, will not be renewed. Company President John Rivers gave the group 60 days to vacate — double the normal 30 days.
Reached Wednesday, Rivers said that for the last 10 years, he’s allowed the museum to operate at a reduced rent of $1,000 a month, but that a new client is willing to sign a long-term lease and at a greater price.
“Everything has a time and a limit, and that’s where we are right now,” said Rivers, who served in the Navy.
While Rivers said he appreciates all aspects of the military, the issue now is for another group or local government to step forward and pick up “subsidizing” the museum, like he’s done for the last decade.
The nonprofit museum started out small and has pretty much stayed that way. Launched by military historian and Citadel graduate George Meagher in 1987, the museum began in a two-room setup on Church Street.
From there, the effort floated around the city — looking for a suitable site to attract a steady flow of visitors — settling on Pinckney Street, then John Street.
In 2003, the 7,000-square-foot operation set up in the bowels of what was then an IMAX theater on the Charleston Harbor waterfront, with Rivers as landlord.
Off the beaten path and low on dollars for advertising, the museum fought to stay in operation, attracting about 10,000 visitors a year.
“Even though we’re next to the aquarium, people don’t know to come,” said Randi Meagher, who took over the effort after her husband died in 2009.
On Wednesday, Meagher and curator Michael Lussier gave a tour of the museum. Thousands of items tell stories of American fighting men since 1776. There are period hats and helmets, guns, knives and bayonets, plus uniforms of all periods.
Among the specialties are Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s original five stars from his uniform framed and hanging on a wall. More recent additions come from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam are also featured.
Much of the collection was donated, but when news of the lost lease began to filter out, some of those who lent the museum treasured items have started to retrieve their pieces.
While organizers recently talked with North Charleston officials about the possibility of moving there, for now there is no location ready to go once the doors are shut for good May 21.
Meagher said that moving in took a year. Moving out is expected to be lengthy as well, she said, with only volunteers to help.
“There’s no way anyone is in a position to drop their lives and come down and move the museum, 24/7,” she said.