WASHINGTON — Christian broadcaster James Dobson smiled in amazement Tuesday as he glanced around the new Museum of the Bible for the first time.
“This is the most incredible thing I have ever seen in my life,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “I hope everybody will come here.”
Bigger than some of the Smithsonian museums, costing more than a half-billion dollars, it is to open Friday just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
America has other museums focusing on the Holy Land or the Holy Scriptures.
Eureka Springs, for example, has a Bible museum.
Harding University in Searcy has the Linda Byrd Smith Museum of Biblical Archaeology.
But no one has ever built something on quite this scale.
“It’s 400,000 square feet and eight stories,” Dobson said. “You could spend a year or two or three here just seeing what is here one time.”
The museum is the brainchild of Hobby Lobby President Steve Green.
The Oklahoma City businessman considered building it in Dallas or New York City but ultimately opted for Washington, D.C.
He settled for a spot in southwest Washington that was long on government buildings and short on tourist attractions.
In hindsight, it was a good choice, Dobson said.
“This was just kind of a warehouse and they’ve turned it into this marvelous structure,” he said. “It’s something to behold.”
Green’s vision for the museum unfolded quickly.
It was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2010. The following year, he unveiled plans for a museum during an event at the Vatican Embassy in Washington.
The property was purchased for $50 million in July 2012.
In a prior life, the building had housed the Terminal Refrigerating and Warehousing Co., an ice manufacturing plant and warehouse that borders a busy railroad track.
Historic preservationists eventually decided that the original structure, built in 1923, was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Plans for the Bible museum had to be reviewed by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and various other government entities.
Finally, in December 2014, workers began gutting the building’s interior. A couple of months later, major construction finally started.
Hard hats were plentiful — as many as 600 workers a day swarmed the site.
The finished building is 430,000 square feet, including a 472-seat performing arts hall, a 630-seat ballroom and three central exhibit floors.
There’s a Disney-style ride that simulates a flight over the city and a rooftop garden where plants from the Holy Land will eventually flourish.
Todd and Ellen Kassoff Gray, Washington restaurateurs and the authors of a popular Jewish cookbook, are overseeing Manna, the museum’s new restaurant.
In one area, visitors can hold 900-year-old Bible manuscripts and discuss their contents with Oxford University professor Dirk Obbink or other academics.
In another, they can learn about efforts to translate the Bible into languages where it doesn’t yet exist.
Speaking with reporters, Green said the purpose of the museum is education, not evangelism.
“It’s nonsectarian. It’s not about espousing our faith. It’s simply educating on this book and we’ll let the visitors see if we’ve done that well,” he said.
Steve Bickley, the museum’s vice president, emphasized that point.
“There’s multiple denominations and faiths that call this book their own, so we respect that,” he said.
Tuesday, as workers rushed to finish the final details, former Ohio Secretary of State and Treasurer Ken Blackwell admired the capital’s newest landmark.
“It is just a magnificent blend of technology and spirit. The technology has made the Bible just come to life,” he said.
The project grabbed Blackwell’s interest from the get-go and he’s followed its progress, he said.
“I’ve watched it from the first groundbreaking ’til the building today. What has been built exceeds my imagination and my expectations,” he said.
One floor tells the “History of the Bible.” Another focuses on the “Stories of the Bible.” A third highlights the “Impact of the Bible.”
Visitors can see a replica of the Liberty Bell, a replica of Gutenberg’s printing press or an original manuscript of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
There are also special exhibits.
One contains items from the Vatican museums and library; another houses items on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority.
A separate gallery contains paintings from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
“These are loans from some of the best institutions in Europe,” said Karen York, director of the museum’s curatorial department.
Green said he’s glad that the museum will finally be able to welcome the public.
“There’s been a lot of work, a lot of dedication, a lot of late nights making this come alive, and we’re very excited about being open here in just a few days,” he said.