During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when 12-Meter yachts were racing for the America’s Cup off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island, the city’s Armory building on lower Thames Street was home to the event’s main press office. Countless skippers, navigators and other sailing legends walked in and out of the preserved 1800s building to tell their stories, often still smelling of salt water and sea air as they lived the moments that would eventually become history in the sport of sailing.
Now—well, in spring 2022, to be precise—the public will be able to walk quite literally in their footsteps.
The Armory is currently undergoing renovations that will remake it anew as an experience called The Sailing Museum. That museum will be the new home for the National Sailing Hall of Fame (whose previous public display was in Annapolis, Maryland) and for a new outpost of the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, which will also continue to have a presence at its current location, the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island.
“We were shooting for next year to open, but given Covid-19, we are waiting for a time to open when there are universally accepted treatments and vaccines,” says Heather Ruhsam, executive director of the National Sailing Hall of Fame. “We could open at the end of next year, but we’re planning for spring 2022 to coincide with the beginning of sailing and tourist season.”
The creation of the new museum is already more than a year in the making. In March 2019, the National Sailing Hall of Fame bought the Armory for $1.685 million. The building was being used as a place to sell antiques, with its general condition overseen by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission. Now, the building is split into two portions, with the City of Newport maintaining control of the beachfront level where there’s a public dock. The state commission is continuing to oversee the site to ensure that any modifications for The Sailing Museum are in keeping with the required standards.
Ruhsam says the plan is to modernize the space, but in a way that’s akin to revitalizing a classic boat. The building will still look and feel like the original Armory, only with upgraded electrical wiring, HVAC systems, restrooms, an elevator and the like. “There are wood elements and hardware, and the roof is all gorgeous big timbers. it’s a free span across the 6,000-square-foot area that used to be the drill hall,” she says. “From the outside, it looks like a castle. It’s a really neat building, and it’s an appropriate home for The Sailing Museum.”
HealyKohler Design of Washington, D.C., has been tapped to help create the museum’s floor plan. The firm’s previous design work includes sports arenas, arts and cultural centers, visitor centers, historical centers and more—everything from the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum to the National Soccer Hall of Fame to the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library.
“Their portfolio spoke to us because we’re an interesting mix of all of it,” Ruhsam says. “People come to Newport who are nonsailors because of that sailing history. We look at the museum as an opportunity to give them a glimpse into the world that we all know and love as sailors.”
The Sailing Museum will be divided into various areas. It will start with exhibits that focus on wind and water—things that nonsailors already share a basic understanding about—and then will move through exhibits about teamwork, champions, competition, and the mental and physical aspects of the sport. The Hall of Fame area will take deep dives into the personalities who have made the sport what it is today.
Visitors will be able to take part in an RFID chip experience, which will give them a personality quiz to determine whether they are more in tune with, say, a single-person dinghy or a fully crewed offshore boat, and then relate their preferences to some of the exhibits throughout the museum. Hands-on activities will include things such as feeling the way a tiller responds as a boat moves through the water, while high-tech experiences will include sizable digital touchscreens that tell a variety of stories for multiple attendees at a time.
The ability to tell various types of stories is one reason why the America’s Cup Hall of Fame will also maintain a presence at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol. While the Newport outpost within The Sailing Museum will allow America’s Cup stories to be told that weave in and out of the international history of sailing, the Bristol location can focus on the four decades when the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company was practically synonymous with the America’s Cup races.
“I always thought about the Herreshoff Museum and the America’s Cup Hall of Fame as sort of a Venn diagram: two circles that had a 40-year overlap,” says Bill Lynn, president of the Herreshoff Marine Museum. “The America’s Cup obviously existed before 1893 and after 1934, but that 40-year time period is what we call the Herreshoff Era. There were eight Cups, and the Herreshoff company built the defenders for all eight. There’s a really cool bunch of stories there to tell that we can dive into with more depth here.”
The America’s Cup Hall of Fame exhibits in Newport will be designed to complement the exhibits at the Bristol location, and vice versa, with the hopes of inspiring visitors to take a look at what’s going on in both places. In Bristol, the America’s Cup Hall of Fame exhibits will be in a building on the former Herreshoff Manufacturing Company campus that is in the process of being converted to museum space—pretty close, it turns out, to where modern-day Cup challenger American Magic is currently building boats.
“The Herreshoff Museum is about engineering and innovation. The America’s Cup obviously is the bleeding edge of innovation and technology in sailing,” Lynn says. “It’s a natural fit for us here, especially given the 40-year run of America’s Cup events that the Herreshoff company had.”
Back at the Armory location in Newport, there also will be event space for both the America’s Cup Hall of Fame and the National Sailing Hall of Fame. Several American inductees are members of both halls of fame, and some still can be seen from time to time along the docks at Newport, continuing to take part in the sport for which the city has long been beloved. Tourists may not immediately recognize dual inductees such as Gary Jobson or Dennis Conner if they see the men strolling along the waterfront, but at The Sailing Museum, they’ll have a chance to learn their stories and contributions to sailing for many years to come. “Probably 75 percent of our visitors will be tourists and nonsailors,” Ruhsam says, “so we have to capture their attention and get them excited about this sport.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.