Frankford Civil War museum looking for $500,000 for move

The Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library is asking for donations to help it relocate from the Ruan House in Frankford.

The Grand Army of the Republic Museum & Library has been located at the John Ruan House, 4278 Griscom St., since 1958. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Raising $500,000? That’s a challenge. Doing it in six months? That’s ambitious, maybe even unrealistic.

However, the Grand Army of the Republic Museum & Library recently launched a campaign to do just that in an attempt to finance its anticipated move out of Frankford, where it has been since 1958.

Joe Perry is cautiously optimistic. The museum’s president said they raised nearly a third of the campaign’s goal in 2019.

“I know it’s ambitious, but we have to really start to think of the possibilities of where we can get this money,” Perry said. “It’s ambitious, but we want to show people that we’re ambitious.”

The GAR Museum possesses a collection of Civil War artifacts, including a bust of “Old Baldy,” Gen. George Meade’s horse, passed down by the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization formed for Union veterans. It also includes a 7,000-volume research library and a trove of period documents.

As previously reported by the Times, the nonprofit museum’s board decided to pursue moving out of the John Ruan House, an 18th-century Georgian mansion at 4278 Griscom St., due to its out-of-the-way location and concerns about safety in the neighborhood.

Perry said board members determined it will take half a million dollars to pay for a property meeting the museum’s needs and its goal to expand programming. It’s the biggest fundraising effort they’ve ever attempted. 

“The very existence of the Museum and public accessibility to the collection is at stake,” the GAR board wrote in a letter to supporters last month. “We need to take action now so that the Museum’s future will be secure.” 

The hope is to move by the end of the year, Perry said. They have scoped out a few spots, and potential buyers have been touring the Ruan House.

“It’s not an easy find, but we’re going to keep doing it,” Perry said. “We have one good possibility, but I can’t speak to it right now.”

Perry said the board is looking for a property in the city that is at least 6,000 square feet with a space that could be used as a meeting room for events. It has to be climate-controlled and have parking, he said.

Ideally, the new museum would be near transportation, schools and other cultural institutions. It would also be good if the neighborhood had some historic connections. Perry specifically mentioned Germantown, East Falls and Tacony as possible landing spots.

The museum had considered moving into a strip mall or shopping center, with the GAR Museum serving as an anchor, in the Northeast. However, Perry said, they are now looking elsewhere as commercial spaces have proven to be above their price range.

Museums, especially smaller ones like the GAR, have found it difficult to survive in Philadelphia’s crowded historical landscape. 

“There are some smaller museums around, and the people that are running it, they’re doing it out of love,” Perry said. “They’re not making any money or can expand.”

For example, after selling its building, the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia was homeless, its collection in storage, for several years before it reached an agreement in 2016 to transfer artifacts to the Gettysburg Foundation. Its records and documents are currently housed at the Union League of Philadelphia.

Part of the museum’s collection is featured in a permanent exhibit on the Civil War and Reconstruction that opened in May at the National Constitution Center.

Another institution, the Philadelphia History Museum, also known as the Atwater Kent Museum, shut its doors in July 2018 due to financial difficulties. In November, the museum outlined a partnership with Drexel University to chop up the collection and showcase it at different venues and online. 

Those are the types of scenarios Perry and the GAR Museum board would like to avoid. They’d prefer to stay open and independent, he said. 

“If the building becomes too untenable, to save the collection, we may have to store it somewhere until we get a building,” Perry added. “We don’t like doing that.”

He added that the board intends to buy or lease a property before selling the Ruan House.

It’s not a move-or-die situation. The GAR Museum has enough money to stay in Frankford, if necessary, but Perry fears the Ruan House, which dates to 1796, is a ticking time bomb. 

Right now, there are no issues with the building, he said. However, Perry estimated it would cost $50,000 to replace the house’s roof, and any major alterations to the outside of the building have to pass muster with the Philadelphia Historical Commission. 

The way forward, he believes, is a new home with more programming and events. Perry pointed to successful museums that offer classes, overnight stays and even weddings. 

“You have to look a little bit outside the box for a museum today,” he said. 

At present, the GAR Museum is open only on Tuesday afternoons and the first Sunday of the month. 

As for the fundraising effort, Perry said the museum could get a portion of the $500,000 and build up an endowment as they transition into a new building. Or they could always modify the campaign, he added.

“There’s a lot of possibilities,” Perry said.

Donations can be mailed to the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum, 4278 Griscom St., Philadelphia, PA 19124. ••