Ron Lerch paused in front of a display of black and white photos that offer a glimpse into Richland's rich past -- from an old shoe repair shop to a theater to trailers that were part of a massive Hanford construction camp.
"These are some of my favorites," Lerch said, perusing the shots. They're part of the extensive collection of photos and artifacts -- many of which are Hanford-related -- at the Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science & Technology in Richland.
The museum, known as CREHST, opened in 1997 and has welcomed more than 100,000 visitors during its 17 years of operation.
But Friday, it will close its doors permanently, ahead of the opening later this year of the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center.
CREHST officials are anticipating a rush of people in the next few days looking to squeeze in one final visit.
"We had a great number of people show up last Saturday. ... And we expect big crowds this week," said Lerch, who serves on the Environmental Science and Technology Foundation board, which operates CREHST.
Lerch also is a member of the Reach board.
The long-awaited interpretive center, which is under construction now at the west end of Columbia Park, won't open until the summer.
But Lerch and other CREHST officials said time is needed prepare the materials that will make the transition to the new center and take care of those that won't. (Some in that category will be returned to the original donors, others will be stored or loaned to groups such as local museums and the Washington State Historical Society).
Officials said they also need to get the CREHST building ready to be turned back over to the city of Richland, which has been providing it rent-free.
The CREHST museum's eventual closure has been planned for several years.
At one time, officials were considering expansion. But the Hanford Reach was named a national monument and there was talk of an interpretive center. "We as a (foundation) board decided at that time that we would join in that effort, that we would become part of that interpretive center," Lerch said.
At first, the vision for the interpretive center was grander, but the project hit delays, including issues with a previous site and stalled fundraising amid the recession. In the last couple of years, the project gained momentum with some new leadership and a scaled-back plan.
The facility set to open this summer will have a 14,000-square-foot main level, with two galleries, a multipurpose room, a film viewing room, a great hall, offices and a store. A 10,000-square-foot basement and outdoor elements such as an amphitheater also are planned.
The interpretive center won't have as much room to tell the Hanford story -- at least at first -- as once envisioned, which disappointed some in the community. But it will start out with a Manhattan Project exhibit, and the plan is to add more Hanford exhibits over time as funding comes together. The facility was designed so that it can be expanded, Reach officials have said.
Six of CREHST's eight employees have chosen to make the transition to the Reach center. Officials said the museum also owes a great debt to the many docents and other volunteers who've helped out over the years.
"We could not have stayed open or even come close to succeeding without the tremendous support we've had from (them)," Lerch said, adding that he hopes many will remain active with the Reach center.
Shirley Long, president of the Environmental Science Technology Foundation board, agreed, saying, "we want everyone to know we appreciate and thank them for their support of the CREHST museum over the last 17 years."
Friday's closure, she said, means a new beginning. "It's the end of one chapter, but definitely the beginning of a whole new chapter for our community," Long said.
Two Richland friends plan to be among those paying visits to CREHST this week.
Jim Tadlock and Bob VerSteeg heard the museum was closing for good, and "it's been a long time since we've been here," said Tadlock, 73.
He and VerSteeg, 76, both worked at Hanford. Looking through the photos and artifacts, VerSteeg said, "will bring back quite a few memories."
The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Friday at 95 Lee Blvd. Online: www.crehst.org.
-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saraTCHerald