In 1986, John H. Hill, President and CEO of Colonial Freight Systems in Knoxville, Tennessee, presented the idea of establishing a museum to honor Medal of Honor recipient Alvin C. York to the Sergeant Alvin C. York Chapter of the 82nd Airborne Division Association. The chapter appointed a study committee that ultimately recommended the creation of a Museum of Military History featuring a “Hall of Valor” to honor the Medal of Honor and its recipients. Chattanooga was named as the preferred location.
The Medal of Honor Hall of Valor Museum of Military History Foundation was officially incorporated on November 6, 1987 to make the proposal a reality. Shortly thereafter, the organization leased office and exhibit space in Chattanooga’s Soldier’s and Sailor’s Memorial Auditorium. Two years later, the fledgling institution relocated to space rented from the City of Chattanooga where it remained for approximately 12 years before temporarily closing and placing its artifacts in storage.
In 2003, the museum found a suitable facility and opened a modest exhibit gallery in Northgate Mall. Three years later, the institution moved the artifacts that were not on exhibit to an improved collection-storage facility on the campus of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. The museum remained at Northgate Mall for 16 years, operated primarily by a dedicated group of volunteers and gained increased visibility with an annual attendance around 6,000 visitors.
During this period, the museum adopted the Medal of Honor Character Development Program, developed by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, and implemented it within the Hamilton County School System. The curriculum proved to be popular, and in 2016 the Tennessee State Education Commission approved the Congressional Medal of Honor Character Development Program as a statewide initiative. Nearly two years ago, James Scott created and designed a unique version of the program that enables the Heritage Center to offer this incredible program to elementary students in Chattanooga’s Youth and Family Development Centers.
The museum continued to search for a larger and centrally located permanent home. In January 2017, Coolidge Park, named in honor of local Medal of Honor recipient Charles H. Coolidge, was identified as a promising location to build a new facility. Ultimately, however, there was no agreement on a plan to build in that area.
A committee was established to determine the best home for the expanding organization. After considering several possible locations, the committee unanimously agreed that a 19,000 square-foot property in downtown Chattanooga’s Aquarium Plaza was the ideal location. In August 2017, the museum’s board of trustees executed a letter of intent with the River City Company, the property’s owner, to lease the facility so the new National Medal of Honor Heritage Center could be located in the heart of where its heritage started back in 1863 — Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The board immediately launched a capital campaign to generate the $6.25 million required to renovate the facility and to create world-class exhibits. The fund-raising effort was boosted by a $500,000 appropriation from the state of Tennessee, which was then matched by the combined gifts of the City of Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments. Joined by philanthropic individuals, veterans and their families, charitable foundations and corporations, the campaign reached and surpassed its fundraising goal in late 2019.
As part of the relocation process, the organization made a decision to return to its roots and refocus on commemorating the Medal of Honor recipients, changing its name to the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center.
The new name recognizes Chattanooga’s national stature as the “Birthplace of the Medal of Honor” during the Civil War as well as acknowledging that this national story has strong Chattanooga connections through local award recipients. The “heritage center” aspect of the name emphasizes the organization’s dedication to teaching the stories and values of Medal of Honor recipients for the benefit of future generations.
Officially opening on February 22, 2020, the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center is operated by an experienced professional staff with the aid of a large group of volunteers, and it offers a range of exhibits, unique programming and special events, and character education educational courses and activities for visitors of all ages.
We look forward to seeing you soon!