Casa de Adobe, a 70-year-old replica of a California rancho in Highland Park, has a reputation as a somewhat sleepy place. It draws about 15 visitors a day.
So when a group of Latino children from an apartment complex next door began using the broad lawn and shaded porch of the landmark as a much-needed place to play, they were not wholly unwelcome to the curator of the collection there.
Adobe Flaking Away
But the Casa de Adobe was not holding up too well under the strain. Soon, to the chagrin of curator Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle, the adobe was flaking from the frame of the building; the lawn was pocked by children's feet, and the house's wooden steps were scratched from skateboard wheels.
So Falkenstien-Doyle decided to invite the children in.
Three years and many rolls of ribbon and colored paper later, the 15 or so "Casa kids" are an institution in the tiled courtyard and the cool kitchen of the historic house. They no longer play rough games on the museum grounds. Instead, museum employees have found quieter ways to occupy them--and to teach them a bit about art and history.
Last year the museum formally endorsed the efforts of its employees to give the children somewhere to play. This summer, with the help of grants from two national nonprofit groups and a budget of $2,100 a year, the program is in full swing.
For the children, the Casa is a kind of second home--more inviting than the cement environs of their apartment building and more accessible than Arroyo Seco Park, which lies across four-lane Figueroa Street. For the museum, the program for children 5 to 15 is a chance to expand the influence of the 80-year-old museum beyond its well-educated, upper-class clientele and increase its contribution to the burgeoning ethnic community around it.
Officials have hired an instructor to spend one day a week with the children. Museum employees have gotten into the habit of saving discarded exhibit materials to furnish art supplies, and Sandra Soloff, who works with the children now, takes them on field trips to neighborhood pools, local theater events and Los Angeles area museums.
"It's kind of broken the ice," Southwest Museum Curator of Education Arna Cohen said. "We haven't had any real active outreach until now--and we have been here for 80 years."
But the women involved in the program say it was actually the children who forced museum officials to reach out to the surrounding community, and not the other way around.
It was the children, they say, who adopted the Casa de Adobe as their playground. And it was the children who refused to leave the property--peeking inside the forbidden courtyard until they were invited in.
"They were curious about what was on the inside," Falkenstien-Doyle said. "It got to the point where they would come back every day and expect to be let in. . . . It seemed a shame not to."
The museum does not advertise the program. All the children who started in it three years ago are still there, and officials say they have no resources to expand.
"We thought about, at one point, making it bigger and getting grants and stuff like that," said Barbara Arvi, who worked with the children until Soloff took over in June. "But then all the kids from the Pasadena Art Workshop group and all these kids that sort of do the museum circuit would come. We sort of wanted to keep it for these kids on the street."
On a sunny day last week, a table under the eaves of the Casa's courtyard was covered with paper, glue, scissors and material, and seven children, speaking in a mixture of Spanish and English, were learning to make masks.
"I tell my friends I have a special place to come and play," said Barbara Pineda, 10, eating candy made of chili and tamarind paste. "Some of them come, too, sometimes."
The presence of the children, and the increasingly active involvement of their mothers, has in a sense revived the Casa de Adobe, museum employees say.
"It was always sort of this precious little thing sort of stuck there, sort of this romantic little slice of California history," Falkenstien-Doyle said. "The neighborhood just sort of grew up around it, but it didn't change. Now with the kids coming there, it has really given it life. It has given it meaning again."