It is inspiring to realize it was a little over 100 years ago that Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air machine in this stretch at Kill Devil Hills. The Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center that celebrates that accomplishment was due an upgrade, according to David Hallac, Superintendent of National Parks of Eastern North Carolina — and on Sept. 29, the public will get its first look at the new improved Center.
“It is really a two-part project,” Hallac says. “First is the building renovation, then the exhibits fabrication project.”
The building itself is noted for its architectural elements that represented “Mid Century Modern” style when it originally opened in 1960. The work reflects a “top to bottom” renovation, including a new roof, new custom-fabricated windows, complete update of the restrooms, foundation and concrete work, refinishing of cypress paneling inside and out, new lighting, and all new electrical and plumbing service.
In addition, the Center has added innovative sustainability features. The heating and air conditioning will use geothermal heat exchange, and a 10,000-watt solar panel to help generate electricity during peak building use.
The building renovations have been needed for about a decade, according to Hallac, and are budgeted at $5.8 million with funds coming from the National Park Service.
“The building is just under 9,000 square feet, and receives a lot of visitors,” Hallac says. “It is common to welcome more than 400,000 and up to half a million visitors a year. We feel confident the public will appreciate and enjoy these renovations.”
Beyond the facelift for the building, the public will also enjoy the updating of the exhibits.
Of course the centerpiece is the replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer itself (the original resides in the National Air and Space Museum). The main gallery was built to accommodate the flyer, where it will be reinstalled for the reopening.
But that is just the beginning. The park was able to procure a separate $1.5 million fund to create educational, interactive exhibits.
“This was an opportunity for us to provide engaging, modern, new exhibits that all members of the public of all ages, from children to adult, will learn from and be inspired by.”
They include a new LED 16-screen video wall array that flashes historic images to tell the story of flight, Wilbur’s and Orville’s triumphs and setbacks, and what life was like on the Outer Banks in 1900.
Outdoors, visitors can view examples of the workshop and living quarters, and climb on a sculpture of the replica flyers. There is an educational bookstore, and from time to time the Center will host special talks and demonstrations.
So what is the most popular exhibit?
“After seeing the flyer, people like to view the flight path, the actual path the flyer traveled,” Hallac says. “There are markers noting every successful flight. Then they like to climb the hill and stand at the base of the Wright Brothers monument.”
Hallac sees a common response by visitors from all walks of life, from kids to engineers and pilots, and people from every country.
“It can be a very emotional experience,” he says. “The Wright brothers changed the world in this very location, in terms of making the earth a much closer place, and in making the world a better place.”
He also sees the Center as expanding its role in inspiring school groups to pursue and appreciate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs.
“We do have school groups that come and visit, and I am so please to have that happen,” he says. “While looking at a textbook is important, when they can visit the location where two brothers invented and took the flight, those principles become more real and exciting.”
Whoever they are and from wherever they come, visitors have no trouble finding the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center. It attracts nearly half a million visitors a year, despite being an hour and a half from the nearest major airport and two and a half hours from Interstate 95. Hallac invites everyone to add it, and all the public land management areas, to their vacation plans.
“We call it the ‘sunburn recovery center,’” he says. “After people hit the beach hard for a few days, they are looking for a break. We say come to the Visitor Center, and have a great time learning about the Wright brothers. I encourage everyone to enjoy it.”