Site work on the star-shaped U.S. Marshals Museum began this week along the Arkansas River in Fort Smith.
It was a long time coming.
After a four-year campaign in the early 2000s to win the rights to build the museum in Fort Smith, in January 2007 former U.S. Marshals Service Director John Clark announced the decision that Fort Smith would be the home of the U.S. Marshals Museum.
The museum’s board of directors intend to open the museum on Sept. 24, 2019, to coincide with the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Marshals Service.
Over the course of the next month or so, crews with CDI Contractors will create a high dirt pad for the 53,000-square-foot museum and let the dirt settle until the spring. A concrete slab will then be created starting in the spring to place the museum over 3 foot above the 500-year floodplain, or about 5 feet above the current construction site.
“This is preliminary work to get the building pad and get some settlement requirements in,” Blake Helm, senior project manager for CDI Contractors, told reporters Wednesday at the construction site near the intersection of H Street and Riverfront Drive. “People will see about 100 dump trucks a day coming in and out of the site for about a month while we build the building pad.”
Patrick Weeks, president and CEO of the U.S. Marshals Museum, stressed that it was part of the construction plan that after this phase of site work there will be a "pause" until the spring.
"After this work is done, somewhere between three and six weeks depending on weather, we are, on purpose, going to stop and let this building pad and overburden settle until the middle of next spring when we start construction," Weeks said.
At “peak construction” of the U.S. Marshals Museum next year, Helm said there will be between 100 and 125 people on site. Fearing loose soil underneath the site, Helm noted that CDI Contractors earlier this year took a deep soil sample and made the realization they would not have to dig a 16-foot-deep pit and then refill it with more solid soil. The move saved the development about $500,000 and a month worth of dirt work.
“It was a real savings and benefit for the project,” Helm said of the soil sample project.
Reese Rowland of Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects described how the setting and location of the museum was significant to the U.S. Marshals Service history.
More deputy and deputy marshals are buried in the Fort Smith region than anywhere, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History.
“There’s so much history here as the launching point for the U.S. Marshals into the Oklahoma Territory,” said Rowland, principal architect for the Little Rock-based firm. “We built on that idea and this building launches visually to the west … a Marshals badge embedded in the ground lifting to the sky opening to this western territory.”
Rowland said the unique structure will have a distressed metal covering that resembles the varnished steel of a well-worn Marshals badge. The point of the star reaching west will top out at about 50 feet over the ground with glass windows allowing natural light into it.
Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects also designed the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum at Little Rock, which is also on the Arkansas River. Rowland said there was “no real precedent” for a museum that represents U.S. Marshals.
“That’s what makes it exciting for us,” Rowland said. “We dived into the history of the Marshals and what they’re going to do in the future. It’s a museum that will span to the late 1700s to the future.”
Rowland, a Paris native, said architects were also able to save "a lot of money" on the museum project by lowering the point of the star to 50 feet. As a child, coming into downtown Fort Smith for weekend shopping trips, Rowland said the building now occupied by Area Agency on Aging was an inspirational building to him that helped prod his early interest in architecture.
Alice Alt, vice president of development for the U.S. Marshals Museum, said seeing the start of construction this week has been "probably one of the single most exciting times in the history of this organization."
"This is the reality of it all," Alt said.
Meredith Baldwin, marketing and events manager, noted that the community has pitched in about $35.5 million in cash, pledges and land for the museum's construction and operations, leaving about $21 million left to raise.