The brick oil house next to the historic Ford Craneway, where jeeps and tanks were assembled during World War II, soon will become the place where visitors come to learn about how workers in Richmond and across the nation rolled up their sleeves to support the country in a time of war.
Orton Development, which owns the old Ford Assembly Plant, will spend next year renovating the oil house, so named because the small building stored the fuel tanks for the plant's electricity and steam.
The 10,000-square-foot visitor center for the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park could open as early as fall. It will include exhibits, classrooms, a bookstore and a theater to teach visitors about the homefront effort not just in Richmond, but around the country, said Tom Leatherman, park superintendent with the National Park Service.
As many as 300,000 visitors a year could come through the doors, Leatherman said. An exact figure won't be known until the center is operating, he added.
"I've never been to a national park that didn't have a visitor center. This is an essential piece of a national park," said Steve Duran, the city's community economic development director. "This is key to bringing it all together, where people will have a place to go to learn about the history."
The Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park opened in 2003 to honor the homefront effort and those who made history. In Richmond, workers churned out military equipment at the Ford Assembly Plant and built ships at the Kaiser shipyards. Women and minorities joined the work force in large numbers. Prepaid health care and government-sponsored child care debuted.
The national park includes the Rosie the Riveter monument at Marina Bay Park; Shipyard 3, where the SS Red Oak Victory is docked; and the Ford Assembly Plant. The plant, which has been renamed Ford Point, was sold to Orton in 2004 and refurbished using city, federal and private funds. It is now the headquarters for SunPower, Mountain Hardwear and other businesses, and the Craneway hosts events.
Originally the rent-free visitor center was to be in the Ford building. After the renovation was done, leases were signed with tenants and the space inside was spoken for, according to City Councilman Tom Butt, who is a board member of the Rosie the Riveter Trust. The negotiating parties agreed that altering the spacious Craneway to create a visitors center would take away from its grandeur. So they turned their attention to the oil house.
Negotiations, which took about a year and ended last week, stalled over whether Orton would pay to renovate the oil house to the same degree the Craneway had been renovated, Butt said.
Eddie Orton, owner of Orton Development, disagreed with Butt's characterization of talks. Contracts are complicated when they involve the federal government, he said, and a number of issues had to be resolved. Finalizing a deal in a year is "a blink of the eye," he added, compared to other negotiations that span multiple years and particularly when it took the park service four years to appoint a negotiator.
The parties eventually decided to use tax credits to fund the renovation, which won't cost the city. The park service is supplying $3 million to spruce up the interior. The lease is for 20 years, with provisions that allow for extensions, said Redevelopment Director Alan Wolken, who negotiated on the city's behalf with Assistant City Attorney Carlos Privat.
Orton will continue to own the oil house and lease it to the city for free, except for utilities. The city will sublease it to the park service.
The oil house is more than 70 years old.
"It's well built," Orton said. "We have plans to make it bigger and better."
Katherine Tam covers Richmond. Follow her at Twitter.com/katherinetam.