Construction will begin Wednesday on the $14 million Bollinger Canopy of Peace, a sprawling, three-pointed expanse of steel and fiberglass that will serve as the defining architectural feature of the National World War II Museum and the newest distinctive addition to the New Orleans skyline.
Larger than a football field, the bright white canopy will be about a dozen stories high and will be held aloft by a steel-latticed frame anchored to the ground in more than 1,260 cubic yards of concrete.
In addition to partially shading the interior of the museum’s 6-acre campus during the day, the canopy, which has beveled, Teflon-coated fiberglass sails throughout it, will be programmed with colored lighting that officials say could make the museum a destination in the evenings when the canopy is completed in November.
“We see this as a symbol that will help draw attention to the museum, nationally and internationally,” said Stephen Watson, the museum’s president and chief executive officer. “We believe this will become one of the symbols people associate with the city.”
The 825-ton structure was designed by the New York-based firm Voorsanger Mathes and funded by a 2015 donation by longtime museum trustee Donald T. “Boysie” Bollinger and his wife, Joy.
The canopy was designed as a visually unifying feature for the buildings that make up the museum, which started as a modest endeavor to commemorate the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion of Normandy using New Orleans-built Higgins boats but blossomed over the next 15 years to become the official museum of U.S. involvement in World War II.
Bart Voorsanger, the museum’s chief designer, said plans have always called for some archaeology best kind of defining structure to unite the whole museum, though the canopy has gone through about eight different designs over the years.
Voorsanger won the overall design job in 2003 by deciding that rather than creating a single, 350,000-square-foot structure, the museum should be broken up into several buildings representing the various landscapes of the war, with a common area outside where people could reflect on what they have seen inside.
“I just thought the story was so emotional and complex, and after 15,000 to 20,000 square feet (of exhibits), you need to go someplace and be able to internalize and emotionally digest it,” he said.
Formerly a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Voorsanger was familiar with the central role a parade ground played in base life, and the open space at the heart of the campus became the Battle Barksdale Parade Ground.
But Voorsanger and museum officials always felt that forgoing a single structure meant the museum would need a signature piece to tie its components together and serve as its identifiable visual element.
“I really wanted the canopy to be something of national scale,” he said.
The canopy’s steel is zinc-coated and made up of a frame-and-truss system that Voorsanger said has been tested in a wind tunnel. The museum said it exceeds American Society of Civil Engineers safety standards to withstand the most extreme tropical storm winds.
Voorsanger said the scale model was run through 170-mph winds to ensure that the canopy can withstand winds from multiple directions, including from beneath.
The structural engineer, Thornton Tomasetti, has worked on structures including the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
The canopy is triangular with a slight wave to it, measuring 482 feet long and 134 feet wide.
The museum is working with the Solomon Group, which did the lighting system on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, on the canopy’s lighting, which will cast various colors up its steel support legs and through the fiberglass sails.
While it will provide shade for the parade ground and Founders Plaza, the canopy was not designed primarily as a shade structure. Voorsanger and museum officials see it more as a visual metaphor.
Watson said, for him, the canopy represents how liberty overcame the forces of tyranny and fascism, but “everyone is going to have a different interpretation of what it means to them.”
Voorsanger said he wanted the design to represent the notion of peace through strength. Two of the four legs come together before they contact the earth, creating an asymmetry that signifies the complexity of the path to peace, he said.
But like Watson, Voorsanger said, “I’m hoping people will seek their own revelations as they see it.”
The museum is entering the final stretch of its development into a $400 million complex.
Work began in December on the eight-story, $66.5 million Higgins Hotel and Conference Center, which will open in mid-2019, about the same time as the Hall of Democracy, a 34,800-square-foot pavilion dedicated to education, outreach, publishing, research and new media activities at the museum.
The final major exhibit space at the museum will be the $46 million Liberation Pavilion, which is still being funded and should begin construction next year. It is due to open in 2020 with exhibits covering the end of the war, the destruction it left behind, the cost of victory, the Holocaust, the Nuremberg Trials, the Marshall Plan and the efforts of the “monuments men,” among other things.