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National Ornamental Metal Museum

Memphis, TN


NOMMA is proud of its role in the founding of the Metal Museum in the mid 1970s.


In 1974 a small group of NOMMA members had a magnificent dream. They proposed the idea of creating a national museum to preserve and promote the craft of ornamental metalworking. While there is no written record on when the idea was conceived, according to one long-time member, the dream was sparked during a joint picnic between the Mid-South (Memphis) and St. Louis chapters.


By January 1975, the vision was picking up momentum and the Mid-South Chapter already had a hard-working Museum Committee in place. Plans were made to pitch the idea to Memphis city officials and then to the NOMMA board at the upcoming convention in Atlanta, GA.


At the Atlanta convention in February 1975, NOMMA president Bill Haines appointed the first Museum Committee, which was made up of members from around the country. Chairing the group was James Stafford of Memphis, TN, with Leon York of Oklahoma City, OK serving as co-chair.


On the local level, there were times when the working committee was down to 4-5 members, but these individuals persevered and overcame numerous obstacles. By March 1975, the idea was attracting support from around the country. Two months later, the committee had already identified three historic buildings at a closed-down U.S. Marine Hospital as a potential site for the museum. Help was already coming in from various sources, and fabricators made commitments to donate blacksmithing equipment, decorative pieces, and one individual volunteered to chair the fundraising committee.


During the summer of 1975, at the advice of NOMMA’s attorney, it was decided to make the museum a separate entity. NOMMA president Bill Haines also appointed all Mid-South Chapter members to the Museum Committee. The committee was instructed by NOMMA to obtain costs on renovation, insurance, and provide written commitments from potential donors. Apparently pleased with the committee’s progress, NOMMA provided $1,500 in seed money and asked members to draft bylaws and a charter for the fledgling museum. As 1975 came to a close, many of the legal and insurance issues were worked out, and the project continued to move forward.


The next year, the museum was incorporated and the Memphis Park Commission approved the lease for the 3.2 acre site. A lease was signed with the city and rent was set at $1 per year.


Much of the next three years was spent raising funds and preparing for the renovations. In addition to the initial contribution made by NOMMA, many members around the country contributed funds until the seed money reached $32,000. One major development during the 1976-78 period was the creation of a Women’s Auxiliary, which was made up of the spouses of local fabricators. In October 1977 the wives held their initial meeting at the home of George and Louise Keeler, and before long they were busy sweeping, mopping, and scrubbing the facilities. Another important event during this period was the hiring of Jim Wallace as full-time director.


Actual renovation work began in the fall of 1978 on the badly neglected and vandalized buildings. The start-up money was quickly spent, but many members and non-members alike pitched in to help with painting, plumbing, wiring, and general carpentry. As part of a first phase, the main building was turned into a gallery, while an adjacent structure was converted into living quarters for the director and his family. Finally, on February 5, 1979 the museum officially opened its doors!


While the grand opening was a pivotal moment in the museum’s history, the work was far from done. Two immediate goals at this time were to create a landmark structure on the edge of the property, which faces the Mississippi River, and to build a fully-operational smithy. The first goal was accomplished in 1984, with the completion of a beautiful riverfront pavilion that is today a favorite spot for weddings. Known as the Riverbluff Pavilion, the structure included cast iron pieces that were salvaged from an old building on historic Beal Street. Additional parts were cast by Lawler Foundry Corp., and a local metal artist helped to oversee the project.


The second objective was reached two years later with the opening of the Schering-Plough Smithy. Like the museum itself, the smithy started with a big dream and little money, and the project’s success relied on the ingenuity of the museum trustees, staff, and volunteers. The new building replaced an older, crude structure that had served as a small blacksmith shop. A generous matching grant provided by Schering-Plough Corp., combined with donated materials and labor, turned yet another dream into reality. On June 13, 1986, the building was opened to the public.


Other major enhancements during the museum’s 25-year history include the addition of a sculpture garden and permanent exhibits, and the construction of a metal conservation lab behind the smithy. The museum has also continually expanded its library, which was started with a major loan from Julius Blum & Co. Inc. in 1983. Blum formally donated its collection in 1995, and today the material continues to make up the library’s core. All total, there are over 6,000 books and portfolios and over 10,000 slides and photos.


Even on the eve of its silver anniversary, the grand vision for the National Ornamental Metal Museum continues to materialize. In late 2003, ground was broken for the construction of the new Lawler Foundry, which was made possible by a generous donation of funds and equipment from Lawler Foundry Corp.


More recently, a third building was turned into a modern library, following four years of fundraising. , after four years of fundraising, a $1.5 million renovation project is scheduled to begin on the original third building, turning it into a modern library. Used as a storage facility for many years, the building was remodeled to house the museum’s continually growing library. The building provides shelf areas, meeting rooms, and a catering kitchen. Other planned improvements to the grounds include lighting and ventilation upgrades to the smithy, a new staff parking area, and landscaping improvements.


While the gallery exhibits are the most visible aspect of the museum, the facility offers so much more, including apprenticeships for students, education classes, tours of the smithy, and metal conservation work. The overall effect of all the various outreaches and services is an increased awareness of ornamental metalwork, not only in the Memphis area but throughout the world. Special thanks go to the museum’s 29 founders, who are listed today on a bronze plaque outside the building. Appreciation also goes to other NOMMA members who have continued the tradition of supporting the museum.


Most notably, a salute goes to Ken Argroves of Tennessee Fabricating Co. In addition to his long service as president and a trustee on the museum board, Ken also chaired NOMMA’s Museum Support Committee during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

-- Todd Daniel


Sources: Fabricator magazine, meeting minutes from the Mid-South Chapter, other NOMMA documents. 



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