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Children's Museum thinking big

Addition would include Hazlett Theater, Buhl Planetarium

Wednesday, September 06, 2000

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

What should be done with the North Side's Buhl Planetarium, vacant since 1991, and the nearby Hazlett Theater, former home of the Pittsburgh Public Theater?

The Pittsburgh Children's Museum has a plan: Incorporate them into a new, world-class Pittsburgh Children's Center, a place where kids can get their hands on "real stuff" -- a real car to tinker with, a real kitchen to cook in, a real workshop where the hammers, drills and wrenches aren't made of red, yellow and blue plastic.

More and more, America is "raising consumers, not producers," said museum director Jane Werner. "We want to give children confidence to do hands-on things."

To make it happen, the museum is proposing some eye-popping changes to Allegheny Center.

The museum wants to commission an energy-efficient, "green" building that would link the existing children's museum building -- the neoclassical former Allegheny Post Office -- and the art moderne Buhl Building, which would become a sort of incubator housing nonprofit organizations that work with or for children. The new building would form a backdrop to the historic structures, creating a U-shaped group of buildings around a central plaza.

To select an architect, the museum is staging a competition among six invited firms from around the country. Last month, it was awarded a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to fund it, matched by another $50,000 from local foundations.

The NEA award is one of the first grants in the endowment's New Public Works initiative, in which the agency provides up to $50,000 each to 10 organizations to help fund national design competitions for a range of projects, from public buildings to housing and landscape design.

The invited firms are Damianos + Anthony/Rothschild Architects, Pittsburgh; Konig + Eizenberg, Santa Monica; Reiser + Umemoto, New York; Scogin, Elam & Bray, Atlanta; Smith-Miller Hawkinson, New York; and Stamberg Aferiat, New York.

"At first we thought we should go after the big names, but that's not really who we are," Werner said. "We wanted mid-career architects."

She declined to reveal a preliminary cost estimate for the project, partly because board members won't be told the figure until later this month. The state has committed $15 million, Werner said.

By expanding, the museum would double its existing space, to about 50,000 square feet -- a move its board believes necessary because annual attendance has increased 33 percent, to 110,000, since the installation of a Mister Rogers Neighborhood exhibit (now traveling) and the museum's $1 million renovation, both in 1998.

"We have days when there are a thousand people in this building, and it's just too much," Werner said. "We have to grow."

An attendance of 150,000 is projected with the expansion.

Nationally, children's museums are one of the fastest-growing museum types in the United States, said Janet Rice Elman, director of the Association of Youth Museums.

"We have seen a 98 percent growth in the field over the last three years in our attendance figures," Elman said. "They are expanding as well," with 51 of the country's approximately 300 children's museums planning physical growth.

Many, like the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, also are partnering with schools and social service agencies to offer after-school and mentoring programs. The museum serves another 130,000 children through its outreach program.

Werner said the idea for a children's center grew out of the museum's collaboration with Fred Rogers. The new center would provide space for a permanent Mister Rogers Neighborhood exhibit as well as office space for Rogers' company, Family Communications, which produces educational materials.

The children's museum also wants to reopen East Ohio Street and part of Federal Street in Allegheny Center, to enhance access as well as the perception of safety. At the same time, it wants to create a campus-like atmosphere by creating new green space, including the transformation of Allegheny Center's desolate, sunken concrete plaza into Children's Park, where city kids might even play in a stream.

As for the Hazlett Theater, the former home of the Pittsburgh Public Theater and part of the Allegheny regional branch of Carnegie Library, the museum would use it as a showcase for plays and performances for children, while still maintaining it as a venue for adult-oriented events. It's also encouraging the library to adopt a children's focus -- become a sort of magnet library for kids.

Complicating the children's museum plan is the city's ownership of both Buhl Planetarium and the Hazlett Theater.

Last November, Werner said, the mayor's executive secretary, Tom Cox, told her in a letter the museum had a year to do planning for the Hazlett Theater and Buhl Planetarium. Later, the city told her that Management Science Associates, a Point Breeze marketing consulting firm, also was interested in the Buhl building as well as the nearby former IBM Building.

"The design competition is great; the NEA funding is great," said Tom Bayuzik, the city's director of economic development. "But until we know what the deal is, it's hard for the city to make a determination. They or any party are going to have to demonstrate the capacity and resources to undertake such a plan. Until that's in place, the city can only act on what's put in front of it."

Bayuzik said MSA's interest in the Buhl building "has not been made clear. They like the building, but there's been no proposal made to the city. We're looking to work with any group that comes through with a proposal."

In addition to the new building, the six competing firms are asked to design the campus's public spaces, including the Children's Park, new plaza, entries and connecting greenways. Parking also must be addressed.

Each firm or team is receiving $7,000 to prepare its entry, but firms often exceed the allotment and tap their own resources.

The architects will make a site visit on Sept. 13 and 14, and submissions are due at the end of October. The jury meets and makes a decision soon after, and the Heinz Architectural Center will hold an exhibit of competition entries in January.

Jurors are Joe Rosa, director of the Heinz Architectural Center; Sally Osberg, director of the San Jose Discovery Center; Paula Antonelli, curator of design, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Anne Lewis, president of the Pittsburgh Children's Museum board; Reiko Goto, Pittsburgh; architect Mabel O. Wilson, Berkeley, Calif.; and Arthur Ziegler, president, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Among the groups committed to or considering being part of a new children's center are Family Communications, a University of Pittsburgh model preschool, Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, Childwatch, Primestage Theater, Reading is Fundamental and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children.

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