Heritage Museum Flood Forces Crowdfunding Campaign to Recover

Just days before she died, the building she so dearly loved and bearing the name of Priscilla Upton Byrns sustained another tragic hit when a major flood impacted the facility, shutting the place down and forcing major repairs to be undertaken. Thanks to the juxtaposition of these merging stories, I want to share with you now the establishment of a crowdfunding campaign to get them back on their feet.

The Heritage Museum & Cultural Center at the Priscilla U. Byrns Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization serving the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph area since 1965 with local history preservation and education. The facility, opened in 1998 and located on Main Street in St. Joseph, houses artifacts and archives, a research library, exhibitions, and public event spaces. A team of experts advised crucial HVAC upgrades, exterior repairs, and energy-efficiency upgrades in 2018, for which HMCC has received a $50,000 Capital Improvements Grant from the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs. The Heritage Museum must raise a matching amount of funds to implement the grant.

On December 11, 2017, a major flood impacted the facility, caused by the HVAC system located above the upper level galleries. While destructive damage occurred to the building on three levels, thankfully, no historical artifacts were lost and the archival storage spaces stayed dry. This incident has driven HMCC to immediately launch fundraising for capital improvements. The Heritage Museum now urgently asks for community donations toward “Keeping Up the Cupola”— a reference to the iconic tower above our classical brick building, and the imperative need for building investments to preserve and sustain our priceless collections and valued community programs.

By the Numbers: Urgent Repairs and Upgrades Required

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The Heritage Museum & Cultural Center was originally built to last with fine quality materials and attention to architectural detail. However, since the mid-1990s when the HVAC equipment was purchased, those systems have become aged and outdated compared to technology now available. Recent estimates from the Facilities Committee—a team of construction experts, staff, and Board members—have firmly established our need for these capital expenses:

  • Replacement of humidity control system - $26,600.00
  • Replacement of HVAC system (Shepard Hall only) - $89,400.00
  • Upgrades to 100% LED Lighting - $19,500.00
  • Exterior repairs to columns, cupola - $35,000.00
  • Replacement of HVAC system (All other areas) - $89,400.00

Altogether, HMCC is now embarking on a capital improvements fundraising campaign that needs to provide over $300,000 to maintain the facility over the next several years. These expenses are critical in order to protect the museum’s historical collections, halt deterioration, improve energy-efficiency, and sustain operating income. Any funds raised in excess of the $50,000 goal for this campaign will be saved in accounts restricted for use only on capital improvements.

Founded as the Fort Miami Heritage Society in 1965, the center's achievements have always depended upon community support. The facility is named the Priscilla U. Byrns Center in honor of a great leader and patron who made the building possible. They are now asking local residents, and those whose hearts reside in Berrien County, to consider contributing generously to the campaign. The December 2017 flood places an unforeseen pressure to execute the upgrades funded through the MCACA grant program as quickly as possible.

On Wednesday, January 17, the entire community is invited to a fundraising event to be held at the Maud Preston Palenske Memorial Library in St. Joseph. At that “Double Feature Fundraiser,” two PowerPoint presentations will be delivered by Museum Curator Tracy Gierada and all proceeds will support the campaign to “double” their grant funds by raising $50,000 by January 21.

  • Where: Norris Room, Palenske Library, 500 Market St, St. Joseph, MI
  • What & When: Wednesday, January 17 at 5:30-6:00pm “Twin City Trolleys” – History of streetcars and interurbans, followed at 6:15-6:45pm by “1920s Benton Harbor” – Daily life and prohibition stories
  • How: Suggested Donation of $10 to attend one or both programs. Popcorn & refreshments will be served.

Why Do They Need the Community’s Support?

Executive Director Elizabeth Andrews says, “Although insurance will help us recover from the flood, we can only adequately address all of our facility’s needs with the help of our community.” She elaborates on the importance of HMCC in the community: “The Heritage Museum & Cultural Center provides spaces that enrich our community’s cultural landscape. When you donate dollars to fund crucial capital improvements, you are investing in Southwest Michigan’s access to history, arts, and culture. Visitors enjoy our exhibitions admission-free. Local organizations that regularly benefit from the discounted use of our banquet facility include our Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, Monday Musical Club, the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Riverwood Center, and the OutCenter. In maintaining our building, we sustain the preservation, services, exhibitions, tours, and programs that we are passionately proud to provide."

Andrews says, "Ever since opening to the public in 1998, our building has been at the heart of award-winning exhibitions and programs delivered to the public. Our work has earned statewide recognition through awards from the Michigan Museums Association and the Historical Society of Michigan. We have expanded our reach in recent years, using our collections to offer a range of walking tours, including St. Joe Lighthouse Tours on the north pier. Our collection contains nationally-significant resources regarding maritime transportation, industry, agriculture, and everyday life on the lakeshore."

Additionally, the Executive Director says, "None of our services to the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph community can be sustained unless we make financial progress to ensure that our building and historic collections are well-preserved. We must achieve the necessary capital maintenance to our facility to be able to continue sharing amazing historical assets with the public. These goals were outlined in our 2017-19 Strategic Directions set by our Board of Directors to guide our work, alongside other efforts to better reach under-served audiences and strengthen our model for fiscal operations.”

Supporters can contribute to the “Keeping Up the Cupola” campaign in several ways:

  • If you are able, please consider making a generous online donation to the crowdfunding campaign—click this link: http://www.patronicity.com/cupola
  • Share the crowdfunding campaign on social media and tell others you support the goal! Help tell our story and share the crucial importance of these capital improvements to sustaining our work in St. Joseph and Benton Harbor.
  • HMCC also invites donors to schedule a personal meeting with our staff to learn more about the organization’s current challenges and opportunities.

HMCC requests if donors prefer to give in person or by mail, please don’t hesitate to reach out at (269) 983-1191 or info@theheritagemcc.org. Checks can be made payable to “The Heritage Museum” and directed to our mailing address: The Heritage Museum & Cultural Center, 601 Main Street, St. Joseph, MI 49085.