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Written by Mike Spock
We are standing on a platform in the bright July sun facing a crowd gathered on the apron of an old wharf. Captain Kangaroo and Bill Bulger share the honors with trustees and other dignitaries at the opening of our new home, a converted warehouse just across the Fort Point Channel from downtown. Bulger, the Massachusetts state senate president from South Boston and our advocate on Beacon Hill, is a passionate foe of “forced busing.” He welcomes The Children’s Museum, with its equally passionate commitment to integration and social justice, to his neighborhood. For all his political conservatism Bill loves the museum. He is devoted to his kids and is proud of our relocation to Southie. It’s 1979 and something positive is happening to his strife-torn community, if the Wharf is somewhat separated from Southie’s residential core by a mile of old industrial buildings.
In the mid ’70s, on one of those miserable, gray, snowy Boston days, David Burnham, a museum trustee, had brought our attention to an abandoned wool warehouse. It was hard to imagine that any but the most adventurous families would ever set foot in this bleak industrial district. But the building was ruggedly handsome and adaptable, the location had promise, the price was right, and we had an inspiring model in the transformation of the once desolate Quincy Market and Boston waterfront.
With a partner, the Museum of Transportation (MOT) under the visionary direction of Duncan Smith, brought in to help fill the vast space and share the financial burden, we take the plunge. A committee meets every Thursday morning to keep the project on track. Parallel capital campaigns are launched. Cambridge Seven Associates (C7A) continues as our architects. The project is phased, and two ground floor bays are rented to McDonald’s. But progress stalls as the fundraising loses momentum.
Dan Prigmore, a strategic and practiced developer, is recruited as project manager. He massages the banks, finds a fish restaurant for another two bays, and talks some trustees into personally financing its fit-out, replaces our architects, and with the battle cry “Listen to the building, it’s trying to tell us what we can and can’t do!” gets the project moving again.
Somehow we bring it all off: raise and borrow more money, develop exhibits, keep our heads above water, minister to staff and board anxieties, and inter-institutional rivalries. The opening is a triumph. The Children’s Museum attendance increases nearly threefold. We have arrived in the big time!
Ominously, the Museum of Transportation begins to fall behind on its share of the utility and bond payments. Stretched to the limit ourselves, we have to step in to cover MOT’s bills or face having the electricity shut off, or even lose the building itself. The Museum of Transportation sells off some of its collection, retreats from its creditors—and us—and moves back to its original home at the Lars Anderson Carriage House in Brookline.
I spend the better part of the next year in the real estate business trying to find a tenant for MOT’s space, holding the bank sharks at bay, getting our lines of credit extended. A tenant deal surfaces and falls apart. Finally, The Computer Museum, backed by Digital Equipment Corporation, comes forward to pick up the pieces, and I go back, exhausted, relieved, and a lot wiser, to leading The Children’s Museum.
Atlas Terminal Stores was the last of the many sites we explored. From the first meeting in the early ’60s to plan a move out of our home in residential Jamaica Plain, until our opening downtown at Museum Wharf, sixteen years had elapsed. Even though this saga is a hymn to persistence and not moving prematurely, we still nearly loose it all. It is a cautionary tale that bears repeating in more detail.