One of the most popular landmarks in the picturesque Lake Michigan harbor town of South Haven — the Michigan Maritime Museum — reopened in July after a complete facility rebuild, space upgrade, and campus expansion.
The old building, perched on the edge of the Black River just across the Dykman Avenue drawbridge, was demolished last year and a $3.7-million, two-story, 18,000-square-foot Heritage Center was erected in its place.
Unlike similar organizations, the museum’s on-water excursions, along with growing visitor counts for changing exhibitions, events, and hands-on activities, have been responsible for more than 85 percent of the non-profit’s income. With that kind of financial foundation, an $8-million capital campaign to upgrade and expand the main building, exhibits, and grounds, and to preserve maritime history in the region, began in 2019.
The museum’s board wanted the project to reflect the harbor area’s marine heritage and to be an anchor for the downtown maritime district. It was equally important to uphold the vision and values that have made the museum a success.
“We’re right in the center of it, so maintaining the beauty and the authenticity of the harbor was really important,” says museum board member Brian Bosgraaf, chairman of the museum’s capital campaign and building committees.
Once planning began in earnest, the board was faced with another decision.
“We did get tripped up a little bit as we were talking about facilities,” Bosgraaf adds. “Were we going to be an event center on top of a museum, or were we going to be a world-renowned museum with meeting capabilities?”
Although the new facility was designed to be a museum first, plans also included a designated learning center for education and multifunctional spaces that can host meetings, lectures, conferences, and social events such as weddings or gatherings, providing the museum with additional revenue and allowing it to reinvest in the museum’s mission and vision.
“It was paramount to the board that we just weren’t going to have any debt,” Bosgraaf says. “We weren’t going to burden the museum and future boards, and future generations, with any type of mortgage. And we just weren’t going to build anything that wasn’t paid for.”
The museum’s executive director, Patti Montgomery Reinert, says the facility and fleet often generate donations from unexpected sources. That fleet includes Friends Good Will, a 56-foot replica of an 1800s Great Lakes top sail sloop, a restored 36-foot U.S. Coast Guard motor lifeboat featured in the movie “The Finest Hour,” and Bernida, a 100-year-old racing sloop.
Lindy Lou, a museum-built replica of an electric launch from the late 1800s and Merry Time, a donated 1921 Chris Craft Cadet, all offer boat excursions on either Lake Michigan or the Black River.
“It’s been amazing,” Reinert says. “I looked at my voicemail this morning and I received a call from a person who had visited over the Fourth of July holiday and saw what we were doing, and they wanted to make a $5,000 donation. So, people are excited.”
Showtime: The new Getman Galleries will feature the exhibit “Full Steam Ahead,” allowing visitors to experience the golden age of steamship travel on the Great Lakes, popular during the early 1900s.
Partially sponsored by a leading Michigan boat manufacturer, Tiara Yachts, the display will present the history of the great ships while also teaching visitors about the crew’s responsibilities and skills.
“Tiara Yachts in Holland is one of our major sponsors,” Reinert says. “We thought that was a really nice collaboration, looking at recreational travel in the years gone by versus today.”
Tiara is just one of the local companies that’s volunteering time or resources to the project. Bosgraaf’s company, Cottage Home, has pitched in in numerous ways, volunteering time and skills to assist in several aspects of the project such as building docks and detailed customized cabinetry from aged timbers recovered from the Great Lakes. The engineering firm, Edgewater Resources, was chosen for development and architecture. Midwest Construction was the builder.
With the purchase of the property next door, the museum campus has nearly doubled in size, expanding its waterfront footprint to just over 900 feet and making room for the project’s next chapter. Much of the grounds and on-water attractions also received attention and improvements.
“The main part of phase two is a two-story building that looks like the old Coast Guard lifesaving station that used to be on the channel here in South Haven,” Bosgraaf says. “We won’t start that phase until we’re sure we have all the funding available.” At the time Michigan Blue spoke with him, he anticipated that would happen by the end of summer.
Donations are welcome.
Michigan Maritime Museum