CLARKSVILLE — The Customs House Museum & Cultural Center in Clarksville has a somewhat peculiar claim of distinction.
Almost in the category of the Avis vs. Hertz “We Try Harder” advertising campaigns from the 1960s, the website for this prominent downtown institution proclaims its status as “the second-largest general interest museum in Tennessee.”
That ranking really doesn’t matter when you first catch sight of the imposing building that houses a collection of all manner of stuff. The building itself is an attraction. There just aren’t that many Italian Romanesque Gothic structures in Tennessee.
It almost didn’t get built looking the way it does. It originally was a federal building, a combined customs house and post office that was needed because of the large volume of foreign mail generated by Clarksville’s 19th-century international trade in tobacco.
Local residents rejected the first design that came in from Washington, D.C. They passed on a second design, too, but after examining a third one, they settled back on design No. 2. Construction cost $48,000 in 1898.
(For trivia buffs: The architect was no slouch, so it may have been fairly cheeky for Clarksvillians to snub his initial work. William Aiken, the supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury, was responsible. Among his other projects were a federal building for Tennessee’s centennial exposition — the event that brought the Parthenon to Nashville — and U.S. Mint buildings in Denver and Philadelphia.)
With a spire on top, dormers all around, eagles on the corners and impressive masonry work, it practically shouts, “Look at me, and just wait until you see what’s inside.”
“It’s a little bit of everything,” said Maegan Collins, marketing communications manager, noting that the core collection is 22,000 items that mostly fit in the categories of history, art and science. The permanent collection is augmented by temporary gallery exhibitions that usually focus on local and regional artists.
Its diversity means you’re likely to find plenty to interest or amuse you.
Some items are almost expected in a local museum, such as a log cabin built in 1842 and occupied until 1919, or a 1925 Ahrens-Fox firetruck. Perhaps less expected are a decal-decorated NASCAR race car (big-time driver Jeff Purvis is from Clarksville) or a Cox & Amos dragster that held the National Hot Rod Association speed record for two years (204.54 mph).
Of special note to youngsters — and oldsters who once played with model trains — is the Huff and Puff Express, an expansive model railroad layout that volunteers operate on Sundays and Wednesdays.
An eye-catching example of museum presentation is a display about Ben Hall, the local mountain climber who was the second-youngest American to summit Mt. Everest. It’s notable because the life-size 3D figure of Hall is high on a wall and well over your head ascending a sheer face of the mountain.
There are plenty of gee-whiz Clarksville history displays. One honors Brenda Runyon, who founded the first U.S. bank staffed and managed by women, while others point out the sobering fact that Clarksville’s neighbor, and the Army’s Fort Campbell, certainly was a target for Russian vaporization during the Cold War.
A truly notable permanent exhibition is the Lucy Dunwody Boehm Porcelain Collection. It features 170 intricate bird and flower porcelains created by Edward Marshall Boehm. Boehm collectors and admirers make pilgrimages to the Customs House Museum, according to Frank Lott, the museum’s executive director.
Lott hesitates to name what’s most important inside the museum, but he’s quick to brag on a new aspect of the exterior.
That’s the extensive LED exterior lighting system installed in 2020. The massive building now can glow in multiple colors, and Lott can decide on a whim how to change the look. He controls it from an app on his phone.
“The Grand Illumination was in October 2020. It was something to make people feel good during the pandemic,” he said.
Oh, if you’ve wondered what is the one general interest museum in Tennessee that’s bigger, it is the Pink Palace in Memphis.
Short-term considerations: Explorers Landing, a special children’s area that includes a Bubble Cave, where kids can create huge bubbles, is to reopen Jan. 29 after a renovation, and an exhibition of stellar nature scenes by Nashville photographer John Guider concludes Jan. 23. Admission: $12 adults; $5 children (3-17); $9 military, college students and seniors.
Enjoy Tom Adkinson’s Tennessee Traveler destination articles the second and fourth Friday every month. Adkinson, author of “100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die,” is a Marco Polo member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.