Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 19, 2021

‘Preserve the past and inspire the future’

Medal of Honor Heritage Center a passion for former commercial builder

Noah Long, chairman of the board of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, uses an interactive 3-D map of the globe to display information about the recipients of the nation’s highest military award for bravery. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

From designing top-secret military installations during the Vietnam War to erecting malls and office buildings during a 36-year career as a civilian builder, Noah Long has had a hand in many large-scale endeavors.

By comparison, his work on the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga is one of his smallest jobs – but he says it might someday be his most culturally relevant.

“Our mission is to preserve the past and inspire the future,” he says. “Our exhibits preserve the past, and our education programs inspire the future.”

In addition to special displays, the Heritage Center houses six permanent exhibits that take visitors from the heroic deeds that prompted the first medals during the Civil War to the war on terrorism.

Located in downtown Chattanooga, the center offers an immersive experience, with elaborate displays that place visitors in the boots of Medal of Honor recipients and bring their stories to life.

As visitors explore the exhibits, they pass through kiosks that explore the traits said to be common to every Medal of Honor recipient, including patriotism, courage, sacrifice, citizenship, integrity and commitment.

“We put patriotism in the Civil War section because almost all of the combatants on the Union side were volunteers,” says Long, who served as the vice president of construction of the center, which opened in early 2020, as it was being built.

Long was enjoying his retirement when commercial Realtor Bill Raines, who at the time was the chairman of the board of the Heritage Center, contacted him and said, “’I need help from someone I know can build a building,’” Long recalls.

Long and Raines had known each other since meeting in a Las Vegas bar during a shopping center convention in 1972. So, Raines was not only familiar with the lifetime of building experience Long had amassed but also his work on museums while he was president and CEO of Rosser International in Atlanta.

Long spent the last four years of his 13-year run at the helm of Rosser supervising architects who designed four museums. He says the work provided him with a fresh challenge after four decades of building strip malls and office complexes.

“It’s more complicated,” Long says. “When you build a grocery store, you put up the shell and then the owner or tenant does everything else, but when you build a museum, you have to make all the decisions yourself. You base your choices about what you want to display on the museum’s mission statement, and then you do your research and refine your work with your designers and historians.”

As vice president of construction of the Heritage Center, Long selected the planners, historians and architects, as well as the production company that produced the exhibits.

Long says he kept a watchful eye on every phase of the building process to ensure the center produced historically accurate exhibits.

“A museum has to focus on accuracy or it’ll lose its credibility. If someone came in here and we said, ‘This is the uniform Charlie wore,’ and they said, ‘That couldn’t be the uniform Charlie worse because they changed it three months before he joined up,’ then we’d lose our credibility.”

Long says he and Raines aimed to do “a world-class job.” When the project was finished and the museum was ready to open, complete with interactive exhibits (including one that allows visitors to step into a World War I trench and man a machine gun), large touchscreen displays that show information on Medal of Honor recipients, a panoramic movie theater that shows a film reenactment of the actions that earned Charles Coolidge his Medal of Honor and more, Long was proudest of the mannequins of the featured recipients, he says.

“I said to our designers and planners, ‘I want the mannequins to look real, not like you went to the local funeral parlor, plucked somebody out of a coffin and stood them up,’” Long says. “I didn’t want them to look fake or pasty, like at some museums.”

To create the lifelike figures, the production company used period photographs of the featured recipients to determine height and weight so they could recreate – as accurately as possible – their physical presence.

“Madame Tussauds doesn’t hold a candle to us,” Long laughs.

Long was inspired to become a builder at a young age as he watched his father, a general superintendent in Knoxville, work.

Long holds a hand waist-high and says, “Since I was about this big, whenever someone asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d say, ‘I want to build big buildings.’ And that’s what I did for most of my career.”

Long earned a civil engineering degree at Tulane University in New Orleans and then joined the U.S. Navy, where he served with the construction battalion, known as the Seabees, during tours in Vietnam.

Upon returning to civilian life, Long moved to Atlanta, where he did real estate development with a public company for 13 years. He then launched his own business and spent the next decade building shopping centers and office buildings.

Long then spent the last 13 years of his career with Rosser. He and his wife moved to Chattanooga in 2006 to be near family.

Locally, Long has found a number of ways to contribute to his community. In addition to serving on the Heritage Center’s board, Long served as chairman emeritus of the Seabee Memorial Scholarship Association, which raised $3.5 million for the organization’s scholarship program for the sons and daughters of Seabees.

Long is now serving as the chairman of the Heritage Center’s board. In a news release announcing the appointment, which began Jan. 1 of this year, he says he’s looking forward to working with his board colleagues to move the center forward.

“We will continue to grow and sustain our mission – a mission focused on memorializing the incredible heritage of our country’s highest award for valor and educating the next generation about the character traits that embody it.”