For more than 60 years, an 18th-century building on Griscom Street in Frankford has housed a treasure trove of Civil War artifacts and documents.
The Grand Army of the Republic Museum & Library’s collection includes the head of Union Gen. George Meade’s horse “Old Baldy,” a strip of a pillowcase with Abraham Lincoln’s blood on it and handcuffs belonging to his assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
In a matter of months, all of that — including a 7,000-volume Civil War library — could be moving somewhere else.
The GAR museum’s board of directors recently decided to find a new home, and the John Ruan House, one of the neighborhood’s most historic buildings, is up for sale.
Joe Perry, the museum’s president, said the board is definitely looking at staying in the city and would like to remain in Northeast Philly. They’re looking for a place with more visibility and traffic, he said.
“What we’re attempting to find is a place that has visibility. It has a lower cost of maintaining over the years,” Perry said. “It doesn’t have to be historical or old. It could be in a shopping mall. As long it’s visible and we get volunteers from the people who come there.”
Perry hopes to complete the move within six months, if possible.
The reasons for leaving the Ruan House, 4278 Griscom St., are manifold, people involved in the museum say.
The building’s parking lot is small and accessible only through a narrow driveway. It’s on a small one-way street that’s not very accommodating to buses. Keeping the building in good condition is a constant struggle. There are also concerns about crime in Frankford.
“This neighborhood has changed drastically,” said Hugh Boyle, a museum board member and former president. “It’s not, shall we say, an appetizing place to come at night, and even (on) some Sunday afternoons, it’s not appetizing. We want to get a place where people can come, feel comfortable, come here (and) learn.”
Drawing visitors to the museum, which is open Tuesday afternoons and for special programs on the first Sunday of the month, has been a challenge. A location change, Perry believes, could help reignite the collection.
Perry said the GAR Museum wants to expand its hours and programming, incorporate multimedia elements and make its exhibits more flexible.
“Whatever people bring forward, their interests are, we want to be ready,” he said, adding that the collection includes documents relating to women’s role in the war and African-American history.
The museum’s board would like to acquire a property before having to sell the Ruan House.
With the GAR museum planning to leave, some in the Northeast history community may be concerned about the future of Ruan House.
It was built in 1796 by John Ruan, a doctor and respected member of the early Frankford community, and, Perry said, it likely acted more as a small hospital than a physician’s office given the size of the building.
Ruan lived and practiced there for 15 years and, during that time, held prominent positions in Frankford, which was not yet consolidated with Philadelphia.
After he moved out, the house was occupied by Dr. Samuel Pickering, a friend of President John Adams, and later by Samuel Brooke, who ran a large machine shop on Frankford Avenue near Adams Avenue, according to a historic nomination application filed with the federal government.
It’s the only Georgian-style building from that time still standing in Frankford, the document says.
The Ruan House is on the national and Philadelphia historical registers, meaning it is protected from demolition.
Perry said he has spoken to a number of parties interested in buying the building, and all are aware of the historic designation. The exterior of the building has to be preserved, but he said another institution, such as a church, could easily convert the interior.
There’s still a chance that the GAR Museum stays on Griscom Street, if the move doesn’t work out.
“If it comes to a point where we decide that it’s not a go, it’s not financially sound, it’s not going to be a place that we can live with, we might stay here, but it isn’t the best choice,” Perry said.
Perry, a Frankford native, and others admitted that moving day would be bittersweet. Some volunteers, such as retired Temple University professor Anthony Waskie, have been coming to the Ruan House for decades.
Waskie visited the museum for the first time in 1983. He said he was “bit by the genealogy bug” and wanted to find out more about his great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War.
Many come to the museum to trace the lives of their ancestors. It has scores of documents produced by its namesake, the Grand Army of the Republic, which was a fraternal organization for Civil War veterans from the North.
Even so, Waskie, vice president of the museum’s board, recognizes the need to relocate.
“It’s getting more difficult because of the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s deteriorated a little bit.”
Preserving the museum, the only one in Philadelphia dedicated to the Civil War, is the priority, board members said.
“Keeping that information — the artifacts, the research — is something that’s really needed in the history of this city,” Boyle said. “It’s a great responsibility for us to keep this thing alive.”
“The city of Philadelphia needs us for what we can offer them,” he added. “Without us, some of the history of this city could evaporate, and we don’t want that to happen.” ••
The GAR Museum & Library is looking for volunteers. For more information, call 215-289-6484 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.