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Sam Hall Kaplan

A New Home for Children's Museum

December 20, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

The most exciting space in Los Angeles these days is not one or other of the glittering new and expanded art museums, or a particularly festive shopping street or mall, attractive as they may be.

It is in the Children's Museum, tucked away in the Civic Center Mall downtown like a small, cherished box in an ungainly raw crate.

Despite being squeezed into some make-do space and existing on a bare-bones budget, the museum is a sparkling demonstration of function aided by creativity overcoming form.

There, children exploring with enthusiasm an imaginative array of exhibits and experiences orchestrated by a dedicated staff generate an energy that makes the museum's modest space reverberate.

Those energy levels are expected to rise to new heights beginning today as the museum expands its hours to accommodate the expected holiday season crush. Hours through Jan. 4 will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Dec. 24 and 25 when the museum will be closed for Christmas.

More by word of mouth than fanfare, the museum since opening in 1979 has become one of the city's joys. Attendance this year is expected to total about 260,000, despite the museum having had to limit groups because of its constrained 17,000-square-foot size.

"Attendance would easily top 1 million if we could expand," museum director Jack Armstrong says. "With more space we could take advantage of the fantastic creative resources of the community, such as the film studios, and become the best children's museum in the world."

The fact is the Children's Museum in its present location is hurting. Indeed, while other museums with more snob appeal or political clout thrive on the public largess, the nonprofit, volunteer supported Children's Museum has to pay about $30,000 a year rent to the city--even though it serves the school system and generates much business for the anemic municipal mall.

Spurred by its popularity and potential, the museum has been exploring a variety of locations where it might relocate to a larger, renovated building or a brand new facility of about 100,000 square feet. The search, funded by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, is being conducted by the USC School of Architecture.

To the museum's credit, the search orchestrated by associate professor Victor Regnier is being limited to sites in and around downtown.

As those involved in the effort note, downtown is everybody's neighborhood, is central to the freeway and bus systems, and with its diversity complements the museum experience of introducing children to the real world.

A variety of possibilities have emerged in the search. They include building a new museum, combined with a parking structure, on the existing parking lot at Sunset Boulevard and N. Main Street adjacent to Olvera Street in El Pueblo State Historic Park; or simply building a new museum in Exposition Park.

Also being considered is renovating the available Union Bank building at Olympic Boulevard and Hope Street as part of the South Park redevelopment effort; or going into a new multiuse structure there in a joint effort; or renovating a portion of the Terminal Annex as part of a larger redevelopment there when the Post Office eventually moves out.

All the sites have problems, and potential.

El Pueblo Park is the best located, would complement the popularity of Olvera Street, and because the site is clear could be developed soonest. But the park has an unfortunate history of being the battleground of city, county and state bureaucratic wars that could cause lengthy delays.

The delays most likely would be even more lengthy in pursuing the Terminal Annex or South Park sites, where the museum would be only a minor element in ambitious redevelopment schemes dependent on private investors, public approvals and convoluted politics and finances.

As for Exposition Park, a children's museum there could easily lose its identity to neighboring institutions, as well as be overwhelmed by the sports events in the Coliseum. One can just about forget going there on a football Saturday and Sunday, or walking to Chinatown, Little Tokyo or Olvera Street for a bite to eat with the children.

Being a so-called "hands-on" institution, where children are encouraged to get involved in the exhibits, the museum in its search for a site wants the public involved. Opinions on the four sites, and perhaps others overlooked, should be directed in writing to the museum, at 310 N. Main St., Los Angeles 90012.

My vote is for El Pueblo Park, though my youngest son Josef has indicated that he'll settle for any of the sites that can be developed before he gets too old. He already is nearly 2.

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