Magic House transformed
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2008 - It took much more than hocus pocus to complete the Magic House's 25,000-square-foot expansion, which will officially open Dec. 20.
Five years and $15 million to be exact.
The expansion doubles the museum's exhibit space with such attractions as
- a rooftop garden where children can get literally dig-in;
- a whodunit forensics lab;
- a collection of participatory wooden instruments from Jerusalem;
- a large education center;
- a three-story climbable beanstalk that would impress Jack himself;
- and the Picnic Basket Cafe, the museum's first on-site eatery.
"Parents have always wanted us to have a place where kids can have a healthy meal," says museum president Beth Fitzgerald, who has been with the Magic House for 29 years. "Now, families can choose from our menu of soups, salads and sandwiches and have an old-fashion picnic in the new garden."
Other aspects of the expansion include a large, sun-filled lobby that will accommodate field trips, a museum shop, larger restrooms, more parking spaces and other practical necessities that will surely please adult patrons.
More than 400,000 people visit the Magic House each year and the former 24,500-square-foot space often reached its attendance capacity. In 2004, the neighboring condo association approached the Magic House, proposing that the museum purchase its property. And so it was done, leading to the behemoth structure on the corner of Kirkwood Road and Woodbine Avenue.
Motivated by the number of visitors who turned out to see the construction in action, Fitzgerald said they decided to focus a portion of the expansion on the hands-on Kids Construction Zone, a 1,800-square-foot Bob the Builder meets This Old House exhibit in which children don hard hats and take on the roles of construction workers.
"We were inspired by the kids' enthusiasm for the process," Fitzgerald says of the decision to build the innovative exhibit, which features a home in the midst of construction. The wood framework of the house displays the work of the electrical and plumbing trades, while children can install drywall and build with PVC pipe. Other attractions inside the Kids Construction Zone include a pea-gravel pit for digging, a construction trailer equipped with architectural plans and "scaffolding" children can scale safely.
During the planning stages of the expansion, Magic House officials sought advice about content from local educators. Several educators noted a distinct lack of civic education in many curriculums. This input led to the Star Spangled Center, a highly interactive civic exhibit that aims to increase children's interest and knowledge of democracy. Kids can find ways to participate in the legislative chamber, Oval Office and courtroom.
In the legislative branch, children can learn about Congress, sing "patriotic karaoke" to all-American tunes and cast their ballot on such issues as, "Should families and businesses be required to recycle?" The daily results of the vote will be posted on the museum's website and children are encouraged to write letters to their local representatives -- telling them what today's children care about.
Next door, in the Oval Office, children can play Commander-in-Chief at the replica Resolute Desk and hold mock press conferences on video.
Equipped with a judge's bench, jury box, witness stand and more, the courtroom gives children a chance to learn about our judicial system through role-play.
In the "Presidential Rotunda," the walls are adorned with portraits and children are challenged to "Name That President." When you lift a portrait, you find fun facts about each man. President-elect Barack Obama's portrait is already mounted, but the facts are yet to be filled in.
Several other exhibits were strategically chosen to supplement children's education or help combat the issues of today's youth. The active nature of exhibits and the whimsical outdoor Play Garden are meant to get children moving and help combat childhood obesity.
Literacy is the focus of the new Poet Tree and the Once Upon a Time Gallery. At the Poet Tree, children are encouraged to pen their own verse on a paper leaf and affix it to a tree-shaped wire sculpture. In the Once Upon a Time exhibit, children can step into seven storybooks from all over the world.
Fitzgerald promises that the new Magic House is unlike any other children's museum in the country. "We really wanted to set a new bar," she shares. This new bar includes the museum's 2,500-square-foot fabrication workshop built into the basement.
The workshop will enable the museum to create and construct a new traveling exhibit each year, generating new revenue for the Magic House. Revenue is important. The museum has raised $12 million of the $15 million cost of renovations, so it will continue with fundraising events and has increased admission to $8.50 from $7.50.
Not bad for what started as a 5,500-square-foot museum in 1979 founded by two St. Louis mothers. Here's another tale for the Once Upon a Time Gallery: The Little Museum That Could.
The Magic House
Where: 516 S. Kirkwood Road
When: 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Dec. 20
Cost: $8.50 per person; Children under the age of 1 are free. Admission free from 5:30-9 p.m. Dec. 20 & 21
Information: 314-822-8900 or www.magichouse.org
Erin Callier is a freelance writer.