It has been more than 60 years since five marines and one Navy corpsman were photographed raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Japan. The moment is immortalized in photographs and architecture and is a strong legacy for the U.S. Marine Corps.

In November 2006, the National Museum of the Marine Corps will open in the Marine Corps Heritage Center Campus, Quantico, Va., marking the Leathernecks’ 231st birthday and honoring the Corps’ lengthy heritage. Contractors such as Walker Seal Co. Inc., Fairfax, Va.—who have been a part of creating the one-of-a-kind museum—say this is a project they will never forget.

Designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects, Washington, D.C., the $57-million project is unique because of the 210-foot, 50-ton steel mast—representing the scene at Iwo Jima—that angles up through the building and beyond.

Although small Marine command museums exist around the country, until this new construction, the Corps did not have a facility to house its thousands of artifacts.

“We didn’t have much capability of displaying our artifacts in a professional manner,” said Brig. Gen. Jerry McKay.

The museum project was divided into two parts. Centex Construction, Fairfax, Va., was the base building general contractor, and Design and Production Inc., Lorton, Va., worked on the tenant fit-out, complete with exhibit galleries, audio/visual interactives and a theater.

Securing the mast

One of the biggest challenges was the atrium and mast, which is known as the Leatherneck Gallery. The atrium includes an observation deck, for looking down into the gallery floor, and land artifacts, such as a track vehicle. Four airplanes hang from the ceiling. The 150-foot diameter circle gallery has walls clad with travertine marble from Italy.

Installation required 24-inch-thick concrete foundation walls that tower 45 feet tall and support massive steel plate girder beams, which provide the necessary structural framing for the monumental atrium skylight.The windowless structure is built to include earthen berms up against perimeter walls—the wall thickness was necessary to make them substantial enough to support that design.

The mast serves as the center point of the building, and is on a mammoth scale. Putting the mast in place was a significant hurdle. The steel structure arrived in three pieces to be assembled in the field, then was raised with cranes, which lifted the mast over the wall of the central gallery before it was anchored into place by the rib beams. The mast was raised and closed in with heavy-gauge stainless steel panels.

“I’ll never forget seeing them lift that mast with two monstrous cranes,” said Tom Barnett, Walker Seal project manager.

Because of the angle and because it needed to be installed before the building structure was completed, a temporary shoring tower was built to hold the mast. The steel erector set in place specific beams that created tripod-like support system for the mast.

“There were lots of tolerance challenges in making sure the skylight framing and aluminum cladding fit in and around the structural support framing and the central mast that protruded through the apex of the skylight,” said Matt Dye, project executive at Centex Construction.

The mast slants out of building in a northwest direction and has a lighted ship’s ladder up its interior with intermediate rest platforms. Wiring was needed for a safety light on the mast top to make it visible to aircraft as well as to power a smoke evacuation fan on the roof.

Fighting the wiring challenges

Installing the branch electric into the 45-foot-tall structural walls was one of the major electrical challenges.

“They had to do some pretty meticulous planning to make sure they had their routing in the right place,” Dye said.

Barnett said the Walker Seal men did much of their work with a 135-foot-high lift, big enough to hold two men and not much more. They installed 150 fixtures in the ceiling, but spent considerable time bringing equipment up where they could use it, then dropping down for more, since the lift had a limited weight capacity.

The airplanes, already in place in the gallery, were another one of the project’s challenges.

“We worked over and under and around the airplanes hanging there,” Barnett said.

They installed wiring in the steel framework around the gallery but making that work, Barnett said, was piecemeal at best. Walker Seal did prewire the wireway in 60, 8-foot-long pieces, then joined them together on the site.

“We put in the wiring, the outlet boxes, ran the conduit and then protected it as they poured the concrete [for the walls],” Barnett said. “We were able to pull wires through it so that was the proof that it worked.”

With Centex Construction, Walker Seal helped wire what Barnett called “50,000 square feet of cavernous space.” After that was complete, workers moved onto the second phase.

Immersion exhibits

After getting the substructure wired, Walker Seal had more to do under a different contract. Working with general contractor Design and Production, Walker Seal would be responsible for wiring the exhibits and theatrical lighting. The same electricians who connected the substructure also put together the exhibit work.

When the exhibit area is completed, visitors who enter the museum will feel what it was like landing on Iwo Jima, as well as the siege of Khe Sanh, Vietnam, in 1968.

Visitors start by passing through a surround sound theater where they are treated as new recruits. They may be barked at by drill instructors, then will go through simulations of battles of World War II, including Iwo Jima. Visitors walk onto a Higgins Boat and into the raging battle. They continue on into Vietnam.

To make all this happen, Design and Production built—and Walker Seal installed power for—various audio/visual displays, as well as five central audio/visual control rooms serving various galleries, said Dale Panning, Design and Production senior systems engineer. The company also installed equipment racks with MPEG servers, audio servers, interactive computers, amplifiers, digital processing and show control equipment.

The control rooms are designed to sequentially turn on for a diagnostic self-check each day, then synchronize with the other control rooms and displays such as video projectors and plasma screens.

The Ethernet-based system is automated, allowing an audio/visual staff member to walk through the galleries each morning and confirm that all exhibits have started up and are functioning properly before the doors open. The system also can be controlled remotely from an Internet connection.

Design and Production built and tested the racks for the gallery effects in its facility before workers brought them to the job site for Walker Seal to install.

“The immersion exhibits are intended to offer sound, the flashing strobe lights of enemy fire and even a shaking ground,” Barnett said.

To further the sense of immersion, the exhibits include a flat black ceiling with a series of theatrical lights installed to create war-like lighting. Walker Seal electricians installed motion detectors, which allow the launching of each exhibit as someone enters the area. These are connected to the audio/visual rooms where the programmed controls originate.

“There are a lot of players, a lot of people involved,” said Panning. “What’s unique about this museum is the immersion experience as opposed to looking though glass. Here you see, hear and feel the whole event. That’s what makes it special.”

Walker Seal also installed conduits and lighting for a meditation pathway that leads to a chapel on the museum grounds.

McKay said he expected commitment from the contractors involved in construction but is pleased with just how much commitment experienced, not just from the contractors and subcontractors as companies, but from the individuals working on the site.

“It’s fantastic. We’ve had a great group of people working on this. Walker Seal has done a great job. Even the individuals seem to take pride in what they are doing. We’re very excited about it,” McKay said.

This is just phase one of the project.The Heritage Foundation hopes it will continue onto phase two with an additional 79,000 square feet and exhibits that will extend coverage of Marine history back to 1775.

For Barnett, who is 69, this may be the opportunity of a lifetime.

“It means a lot to me to be doing this now,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to work on a job of a really special nature.” EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.