Story 06: The Big Move

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Part 5: Looking Back - How Did It Work Out?

Written by Mike Spock

Trying to tell the story of this very complex, sixteen-year-long search for a new location that would begin the transformation of The Children’s Museum into the thriving landmark institution it is today has not been easy. Like the bricks in the building, each step in the process is made up of stories of its own, complete with compelling characters, plot twists, and nail-biting tension. And this period is but one in the museum’s 100-year life. The following summary of "the big move" tracks the key questions—both answered and unanswered.

Was It the Right Location?

Although just outside the target area of our study, our old wool warehouse could be seen across the channel from downtown, was a short walk from the MBTA Red Line (the Boston subway) and was just off the Central Artery by car. Stewart Pratt pointed out there would be plenty of parking. But some of us would always miss the comfortable ambience of the Jamaica Pond life.

The mostly deserted Fort Point Channel docks, rail sidings, and warehouses were more than a little frightening. You could easily imagine Marlon Brando saying to his mob-boss brother in On the Waterfront, "I could have been a contenda’." But the arrival of the giant Hood milk bottle sparked some life to this desolate site.

We certainly would be pioneers in this scruffy neighborhood. Dan Prigmore reminded us that our old wool warehouse and all the remaining but marginal waterfront properties had almost no value. We could easily afford the price.

Finally, since the waterfront was built on pilings in a landfill—and Boston was an earthquake zone, as demonstrated in the 1755 Cape Ann tremor when steeples and chimneys tumbled into the streets—we had lots of company figuring out how to deal with the new and tougher seismic codes.

Thirty years later, after the trauma of the Big Dig (Boston’s multi-billion dollar mega-highway project), The Children’s Museum is conveniently connected to the expressways, tunnels, bridges, the new MBTA Silver Line, the airport, the convention center and its hotels. The center of gravity has moved far enough for Museum Wharf to now be thought of as sitting right in the heart of downtown.

Was It the Right Building?

Our 1888, six-story, red brick and yellow pine timber warehouse was a handsome, adaptable space, a reassuring and comfortable environment to develop and work with. If we had to move downtown, it still felt like us! It was dubbed by Cambridge Seven Associates as a "Giant Chest of Drawers."

It was an empty shell. Almost every bay was identical to every other bay. There were few unpleasant surprises. The regularity of the thirty-six bays suggested a flexible matrix of separately developable or re-developable spaces as our needs and the world changed.

But, however we cut it, money would be tight. We had to use all our creative juices in planning and be tough-minded in developing only the absolute minimum of the things we had to have to open two usable museums. Phasing would be a necessity. Collaboration would be critical.

Our structural engineers solved the earthquake challenge with a creatively simple solution of a plywood membrane and tie rods. They were very strategic in where they allowed holes to be punched in the brick party walls and floors to open up circulation and create an integrated building.

The giant loading doors that opened each bay framed spectacular views of downtown and the harbor without compromising either the exhibit lighting levels or subjecting the collections to direct sunlight.

Assigning each bay a separately controlled heat pump allowed us to save energy and accommodate the demands of energetic kids and the less active grown-ups while buffering the seasonal swings in humidity needed for the collection.

Was the Timing Right?

We certainly could not have pulled off a big move much earlier! Boston had its hands full developing the more obvious downtown and its neighboring waterfront. We took our time (16 years), had fun looking at many sites, and ultimately studied three options in depth before settling on the Atlas Terminal Stores.

While we cooled our heels in Jamaica Plain, we took advantage of the Visitor Center as a laboratory where we worked on many things we needed to plan the move and create the exhibits, programs, and resources for a new home. By the time we were ready to move we had proved our point and run out of room.

However, as Duncan Smith candidly observed, the Museum of Transportation was at least a decade behind us in preparing for their move. The timing was not ideal for them, and that put our collaboration and its financial equity in doubt.

Looking to recycle an existing building, but realistic that no single option would likely fit all of our needs, we worked out a schema with C7A that would encourage us to develop our new home in stages, adding other elements later when we could afford them and when the need would once again became acute.

It was gratifying, when thirty years after the move to the wharf, and even after an abortive try to create an new front porch for Museum Wharf designed by Frank Gehry, the museum again hired C7A who returned to their original Program Committee Study (1973) and designed and built the missing parts that we couldn’t initially afford.

Was it the Right Partnership?

It was a generous building with, we thought, room to spare for two museums. If The Children’s Museum had decided to take the entire building and rent or land-bank the rest of the space, that seemed unnecessarily greedy, not part of our collaborative culture. But after another decade, that was where we ended up.

In many ways, the choice of the Museum of Transportation was a pretty good fit. Duncan and I were friends and neighbors. MOT matched our creativity, energy, and ambition. However, their culture and ramp up were not the same as ours, and in the tougher moments of our collaboration it was not a particularly comfortable match.

When MOT had to give up the ghost and retreat back to the Lars Anderson carriage house, the parting was painful and left us to clean up the after them. Subsequently, the Computer Museum arrangement was more like a real estate agreement than a partnership, but it allowed us at least to survive the earlier breakup.

Was it the Right Project?

Buying and developing the empty shell and apron of the Atlas Warehouse, and finishing 80 percent of the building, including all vertical circulation, HVAC systems, and restrooms, came in at less than $50/square foot. In the 1970s, that was the cost of a cheap suburban big box store, and as least half the cost of a "real" museum.

The project team did it by paying strict attention to costs, being creative and hard-nosed about making compromises that didn’t affect the ultimate architectural program. Dan Prigmore was fond of reminding us that "the building was trying to tell us what we could or couldn’t do, if we would just listen!"

I relished taking risks and trying out new things, but we were extraordinarily cautious in projecting attendance at our new home. We estimated that we might be two and half times busier than we were in Jamaica Plain. We began doing the calculations years before and made sure that we hit our marks.

We conceded that we would need to overstaff so we would have a cushion to work out details that couldn’t be anticipate ahead of time until we had a full year’s experience operating in our new home. After this small deficit, in subsequent years we could realistically count on returning to a balanced budget. And we did!

Next: Sidebar-Taking the Plunge