The museum that put some of the nation’s most prominent military aircraft on display for aviation buffs from across the region over the last quarter century has officially become an empty hangar.
Quonset Air Museum President John Kane confirmed in an interview Dec. 7 – the 75th anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor – that museum officials decided in August to dissolve the nonprofit corporation at 483 Eccleston Ave. in Quonset Business Park, thus permanently closing the museum after it failed to secure necessary funding to remain open.
“It’s tough,” Kane said.
Quonset Air Museum was established in 1992 by then-Gov. Bruce Sundlun to help preserve the state’s aviation heritage. Many of the aircraft and artifacts it housed, such as a TB Avenger once flown by former U.S. President George H.W. Bush in World War II and an F-14 Tomcat, the camera plane used to film the movie “Top Gun,” were major attractions both at the museum itself and the annual Quonset Air Show.
“Last year, we were the air show,” Kane said. “We supplied all of the displays. The lines went on for forever to access the aircraft. Now, we won’t be there.”
The museum was dealt a major blow in March 2014 when a portion of its roof collapsed under the weight of heavy snow and ice. None of the museum’s archives or 28 aircraft were damaged, but the building was deemed unsafe by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. The museum had been closed to the public since July 2014 before the closure became permanent this past summer.
Kane, along with state lawmakers, tried desperately to save aviation history from becoming history. In January, Kane told The Independent plans for a new 68,000-square-foot, $3.5-million museum were in their “infancy” at the time. Kane said in April he and the nonprofit’s lawyers were actively trying to procure a vacant site on the opposite end of the Quonset Airport runway for the museum, but were subsequently unsuccessful.
Doreen Costa submitted House Bill 7100, which would have appropriated $4 million to the air museum, when she was District 31’s state representative. Reps. Robert Craven (D-Dist. 32) of North Kingstown and K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23) of Warwick, and former Rep. Joseph Trillo (R-Dist. 24) of Warwick, co-sponsored Costa’s bill, which was Quonset Air Museum’s last hope of staying open. Costa, now a North Kingstown Town Council member, previously told The Independent she also spent the summer of 2015 collecting 3,000 signatures from residents who wanted the museum saved.
But H7100 was one of 23 proposed pieces of legislation held for further study by the House Finance Committee during its May 25 hearing at the Statehouse. It did not receive another hearing during the remainder of the most recent legislative session.
“It wasn’t an easy task to save the museum” Costa said Tuesday. “And the $4 million, which we had in the budget, got denied. We had the plans and we’ve done everything we were asked to do. But unfortunately, we were unsuccessful.”
Kane said the situation became dire just days after the May hearing, mainly because there were several “prominent” investors who would help financially assist the effort – Kane asked them for $18.5 million – but they needed the state to show a good faith effort to help save the museum. When the bill was held for further study, the investors went away, and so did the museum’s future.
“Without that bill and money, the investors would not take part in the operation,” Kane said. “They wanted the state to say, ‘This is really an asset and we’re going to help out,’ and they didn’t. So, it fell like a house of cards.”
RIAC Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Patti Goldstein said in an email Tuesday the state agency is “saddened” Quonset Air Museum, which was “embraced by the community,” is ceasing its operations. Goldstein said RIAC would continue supporting any party wishing to assist in preserving the artifacts from the museum.
Most of the aircraft from Quonset Air Museum will have new homes and owners. Kane said the artifacts the museum owns are currently being sold off, with some of them already purchased. A couple of aircraft will be donated to another U.S. Navy museum in Massachusetts, and some pieces will be spread throughout the country.
“Some of the artifacts we own will be spread as far away as North Carolina,” he said.
As far as the Naval assets, Kane said some will go to other museums, while others will not have a future.
“Some [assets] will be destroyed,” he said. “They just don’t have the funding to move any of these things or to do anything with them.”
But there may be hope of possibly still saving the museum. Costa said newly elected state Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21) of Warwick asked her in a message Monday if anyone from the delegation is working on saving Quonset Air Museum. When Costa replied “no,” Vella-Wilkinson suggested Costa make arrangements to meet with the Rhode Island Military Organization board. According to Costa, Vella-Wilkinson said she wants to “develop some kind of funding to see what we can do.”
“I was very pleased to get that from Camille,” Costa said. “This could open up a whole new door for the air museum, which is great.”
Costa said she left Vella-Wilkinson a follow-up voicemail to go over further discussions that may be had about the museum. If a meeting date with the Military Organization board is set, Costa will contact Kane and “get this rolling again,” she said.
“We’ll have to see,” Costa said. “It’s in the baby stages right now.”