Opening the Kidzeum has been a long journey with a winding path. In the end, it came full circle, with the Kidzeum opening in downtown Springfield just a few blocks from the original location of the Springfield Children’s Museum. In the intervening time, a lot has changed downtown.
The idea of a children’s museum started in 1992 with a feasibility study and a group of dedicated community volunteers. After several years of fundraising and site selection, the first Springfield Children’s Museum opened in June 1996 on Washington Street between Sixth and Seventh streets. This was years prior to the opening of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The museum was a popular place for families, attracting 40,000 visitors annually, but it was not financially sustainable. The Springfield Children’s Museum closed its doors on Dec. 31, 2001.
Although the doors were closed, community members continued to explore various options to reopen a museum focused on kids. One option considered in 2002 involved partnering with the Illinois State Museum, which had developed a plan for a major expansion in the Capitol complex. But, this plan never came to fruition.
In 2005 a new board was activated with the goal of restarting a children’s museum.
Rachael Thomson became board president in 2006 when the museum had $250 in its checking account. Through a comprehensive feasibility study and survey of community members, the concept of focusing on childhood health and obesity while teaching environmental stewardship emerged as a priority.
Over the years, various sites were proposed for the Kidzeum. There was some appeal to being located on land owned by a unit of government. One plan involved locating the Kidzeum on the grounds of Henson Robinson Zoo. That plan was abandoned when there was strong support in 2007 for locating the Kidzeum at Southwind Park. In 2008, HSHS St. John’s Children’s Hospital provided a lead gift in support of the Kidzeum’s mission to focus on health and science. The Vital for our Youth Capital Campaign was launched in 2009, with the goal of raising funds for capital construction of the building and exhibits plus two years of operating support.
As more and more efforts were underway to revitalize downtown, there was growing interest in bringing a children’s museum back to downtown Springfield. Consultants engaged by Kidzeum strongly recommended a downtown location, capitalizing on downtown and tourism in order to become a local and regional attraction.
Lisa Clemmons Stott, president of Downtown Springfield, Inc. says, “Downtown fought really hard for the downtown location. A 2012 report from the Sustainable Design Action Team (SDAT) found that downtown was missing kid-friendly options. And, with the theme of sustainability, the Kidzeum fit perfectly with the goal to restore downtown buildings.”
Bruce Ferry introduced the Kidzeum to the old Schnepp and Barnes Printing Building at 412 E. Adams and the building next door at 414-416 E. Adams, which was previously storefronts and a hotel. The Schnepp and Barnes Printing Building was built to withhold the weight of large printing presses, providing an advantage for accommodating the weight requirements for the Kidzeum. Ultimately, a decision was made to locate in downtown Springfield instead of Southwind Park, and Kidzeum purchased the two buildings in the 400 block of Adams Street. The city allocated TIF funds, which was crucial to the decision.
Bringing these historic buildings back to life is another benefit of the Kidzeum. The Schnepp and Barnes building is a three-story with an Art Deco façade. A unique feature is a light well that had been walled off for years. The adjoining building had been storefronts on the first floor and a hotel/boarding house on the second and third floors. It was first called Cliff House and later the Cliff Hotel. Schnepp and Barnes expanded its original building around 1928, adding a three-story addition at the back and adjacent to its original building, leaving a gap between it and the adjacent storefront/hotel building. The lightwell is an interesting feature, adding historic character and a unique contrast to the Kidzeum and its exhibits. No plans have been developed yet for how the lightwell and adjacent building will be used.
Several firms provided the creative work to transform an historic building into a kid-friendly space. BLDD Architects of Decatur led the architectural design, and O’Shea Builders was lead contractor. Kraemer Design + Production, Inc., from Cincinnati created the exhibit designs and educational graphics, all with extensive input from educators, kids and other stakeholders. RedBox Workshop from Chicago fabricated the exhibits. Of the 25,000 square feet purchased, 15,000 square feet have been renovated and there is space for future growth. Thanks to the Kidzeum, another historic building in Springfield has been saved and repurposed. –Karen A. Witter