Set on the Scioto River with an expansive view of the downtown skyline, the National Veterans Memorial & Museum in October arguably became Columbus, Ohio’s most important cultural institution and architectural icon. The 50,000-square-foot (4,700 sq m) circular building which opened in October is sheathed in glass behind interweaving concrete forms that bring to mind troop-honoring yellow ribbons. Known as NVMM, it is the first and only national museum dedicated to the stories of veterans, from their enlistment or draft, to their reception upon coming home and life after discharge.
The museum’s subject matter, design, and location on what is considered the best piece of ground in Columbus have elevated the city’s profile, says Guy Worley, CEO and president of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. (CDCC). The CDCC is in charge of spearheading development through public/private partnerships and served as the project manager of NVMM.
“The museum is bringing a lot of new energy to this area because people from all over the country are visiting Columbus,” he adds. “But we also have a lot of developers from around the Midwest becoming more interested in coming here.”
Over the last eight years, Columbus has leveraged the creation of some 40 acres (16 ha) of green and recreational space along the Scioto River and near the Ohio Statehouse to spark $400 million in new private development on the river’s east bank. Most has been in the form of new residential units on formerly blighted blocks, bringing the downtown population to 10,000 compared with less than 2,000 in 2002, Worley says. In all, downtown has seen more than $2 billion in investment since 2006.
NVMM sits on the west bank of the Scioto River on what is known as the Scioto Peninsula, a 56-acre (23 ha) plot that—much like the east side of the river—was overrun with blight in the form of surface parking and vacant lots. NVMM is just north of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), a 320,000-square-foot (29,700 sq m) science museum and research center that just added an American Museum of Natural History satellite location. In 2017, the city completed a vast new lawn to the west of COSI on top of a new parking garage.
Discussions to create a veterans museum began about six years ago, when the late John Glenn, a former U.S. senator from Ohio and a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, and a group of vets began talking about replacing a small memorial in the city’s obsolete convention center on NVMM’s eventual site. Originally, the project focused on honoring veterans from Ohio, but organizers realized that some 20 million living U.S. vets lacked national recognition.
Philanthropists Leslie and Abigail Wexner threw their weight behind the project and spearheaded a capital campaign that raised more than $82 million. Organizers selected Allied Works Architecture to design the building, OLIN to design the landscape, and Ralph Appelbaum Associates to design the exhibits. President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan bill giving NVMM national designation in early 2018.
NVMM’s mission to honor, connect, inspire, and educate largely captures the spirit of one of Glenn’s well-known sayings: “If I can inspire young people to dedicate themselves to the good of mankind, I’ve accomplished something.” That quote is illustrated by the post-military lives that are on display at the museum, even among vets with posttraumatic stress disorder or other struggles, says Ralph Appelbaum, principal of New York City–based Ralph Appelbaum Associates.
“Maybe the biggest theme of the whole museum is that vets are a unique resource for building good societies because they eagerly contribute to communities and civic organizations through volunteerism,” explains Appelbaum, whose firm specializes in the planning and design of museums, educational environments, and visitor attractions. “They carry the tools and values that they got from military service to civilian life.”
As visitors wind their way up through the building to a green roof and amphitheater, they pass through some 30,000 square feet (2,800 sq m) of exhibit space that features artifacts, letters, and videos of various armed forces members telling their stories. An outdoor ramp that wraps around the building also leads to the roof, and a handful of drivers influenced the building’s circular form, says Chelsea Grassinger, a principal with Portland, Oregon–based Allied Works.
“Early on in the project, we talked about a yearly veterans parade that crosses the river and culminates on this spot, and that was integral to our thinking,” she explains. “Part of it was also the fact that the building is within a park and could be experienced from all sides.” The circular imagery of a yellow ribbon tied around a tree trunk and of medals played a role in the design, too, Grassinger adds.
NVMM includes the Memorial Grove, a 2.5-acre (1 ha) contemplative garden north of the building and abutting the river. A fountain incorporating native stone provides calming sounds to foster reflection, says Hallie Boyce, a principal with OLIN in Philadelphia. The garden also features native plants and American elm trees that will provide a canopy as they mature.
Boyce wanted to connect the garden to the Scioto River, but it required building up the terrain some 14 feet (4.3 m) to match the height of a levee that towered over the site. Excavation for the new underground garage being built next door at COSI provided the fill, and Boyce then placed the grove in a bowl within the newly created landform. As a result, people can walk to the river while taking in an expansive view of downtown, COSI, and the river itself.
“I thought about the sacrifices that vets and their families have made and about the families of vets that would be coming to this museum,” she says. “We wanted to create a space of meditation where people could soak in what they had seen.”
While NVMM has quickly achieved luminary status among Columbus’s cultural and architectural attractions, the city has not slowed its pursuit of more development. About 23 acres (9.3 ha) of surface parking and vacant lots remain undeveloped on the Scioto Peninsula, for example, and the CDCC has targeted a site south of COSI for another future cultural destination. It has even greater ambitions for the western edge of the area, where it wants to develop a $500 million mixed-use project that would include up to 1,700 residential units, 800,000 square feet (323,700 sq m) of office space, 150,000 square feet (60,700 sq m) of restaurant and retail space, and 150 hotel rooms.
In late 2017, CDCC selected a firm to develop the project but later decided to go a different direction and canceled the contract. Worley says that CDCC is now looking for a developer to kick off a smaller portion of the project instead of building it all at once, although it still wants the first phase to include different elements.
“There has been a lot of new investment in the Scioto Peninsula, and the time is right to focus on mixed-use development,” he states. “There aren’t a lot of cities that have this amount of land so close to a river, statehouse, and central business district.”