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Bring home your president

If you disliked the presidential election results, don’t despair. You still can pick your preferred president and first lady, and even bring them home.

Well, sort of.

The Hall of Presidents and First Ladies in Gettysburg, Pennsylvnia, which recently closed after almost 60 years because of diminished attendance, is auctioning off its collection of wax figures depicting all the nation’s presidents and first ladies, from George and Martha Washington to Barack and Michelle Obama. The statues are life-size for the presidents and one-third scale for the first ladies. Murals by artist Charles Morgenthaler, small figures by Gettysburg sculptor Chuck Caldwell, and an MP3 with voice-over audio for all of the 43 presidents also are in the collection up for grabs this week. (Wait – haven’t we had 44 presidents? Technically, no. American trivia: Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms as both the 22nd and 24th.)

Renowned sculptors – including Ivo Zini from Pittsburgh – created the statues with materials that included traditional wax and wood topped with polymer. Over the years, some statue heads needed to be replaced. And the first ladies – expected to attract bids from fashion enthusiasts and doll collectors – wear handmade reproductions of the gowns they wore at their husbands’ inaugurations.

“We like to say they’re one of a kind,” says Max T. Felty, the president and owner of Gettysburg Heritage Enterprises, which owns the Hall of Presidents and other Gettysburg-area attractions. “These specific presidents – they don’t make them this way anymore.”

Randy Dickensheets, who will be conducting the live auction, has been hearing from a lot of interested parties. He says they want to remain anonymous to lessen bid competition.

“This has almost become like a folk-art collectible at this point,” Dickensheets says. “I think you’re going to see anyone from people who run a hair salon and want a conversation piece . . . to a fashion boutique owner.”

Indeed, still wax figures like these, which have filled many history museums, seem to be fading into obsolescence as higher-tech exhibits replace them, Felty says.

More than a million people have visited the Hall of Presidents since it opened in 1957, Felty says; in the first five to 10 years, at least 200,000 people came annually. Many people liked the museum’s focus on all of American history, rather than just the Civil War, he says. Yet, over the past five to seven years, the museum’s attendance has declined steadily, to the 15,000-to-20,000 range annually.

Visitors with just a day or two in Gettysburg, Felty says, tend to choose a hands-on battlefield tour, where they can touch and explore, over the presidents museum. And the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center – a huge attraction that opened in 2008 with the restored Gettysburg Cyclorama, a panoramic painting depicting the battle with sounds and visual effects – attracts the bulk of Gettysburg visitors, he says.

“I think it’s just what the visitors are looking for is just a little bit different from what we’re able to offer,” Felty says of the Hall of Presidents, which he has owned since 2012. “At the battlefield . . . this is where it happened. You can see and touch a cannon on the ground where Pickett’s Charge happened. That’s always been the real draw, and that is continuing to be the draw.”

At the Hall of Presidents, visitors would go from room to room, each of which had several statues; upon entering, pushing a button would start the audio presentation. Voice-over actors provided audios for each president, except for Dwight D. Eisenhower; he recorded his own voice for the museum’s opening in 1957, when he was in office. The Eisenhowers kept a farm residence in Gettysburg, which is now a tourist attraction called the Eisenhower National Historic Site. Sadly, Eisenhower’s voice recording was lost during the upgrading process and had to be replaced by a voice-over, Felty says.

While people enjoyed the wax figures, he says, the simple mechanics of matching audio recordings to still wax figures are dated. People can see a fully animatronic Abraham Lincoln at places such as Disneyland, which makes the Hall of Presidents seem like yesteryear. Visitors – especially kids – demand more. “This type of museum unfortunately has been on the decline for many years,” Felty says.

The Hall of Presidents is the third small Gettysburg museum to close in the past few years; this one’s timing, just after the election, was coincidental, Felty says. The American Civil War Wax Museum auctioned off its contents in 2014 and became the Gettysburg Heritage Center. Later that same year, the Soldier’s National Museum – located a few steps from the Hall of Presidents, in a building that once housed Civil War orphans – closed, too, and auctioned off its dioramas and wax figures.

Another small Gettysburg museum – the Jennie Wade House, the site of the only civilian casualty in the 1863 battle – continues to thrive, says Felty, who owns it. What distinguishes the Wade house from the museums that closed is its location at the actual site of action: the accidental shooting of 20-year-old Jennie Wade, who was baking bread for the soldiers when a bullet passed through two doors and pierced her heart.

Auction proceeds will be used to restore the museum’s facade to its original 19th-century look, Felty says. The house was not there during the Battle of Gettysburg; it was built as a private residence between 1890 and 1910. The Gettysburg Historic Architecture Review Board recently approved the renovation plan. When finished, the building will house the corporate offices of Felty’s company and offer office space for rent.

Washington Post-Bloomberg

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