When planners at the Grand Island Children’s Museum entered the former National Guard Armory, they knew.
“We can already see it, we can kind of visualize the use of this space,” said museum consultant Jill Randerson.
Randerson and Alissa Rupp, a designer of informal educational buildings, were selected by the Grand Island Children’s Museum (GICM) Board of Trustees to transform the former armory into the perfect place for Grand Island children.
“When we walked into the building, we were like, ‘Oh, this is amazing. It’s perfect,” Randerson said.
Inside the Old Armory, Grand Island’s city equipment resides on smooth concrete framed by bare brick walls. The ceiling reaches lofty heights and has an industrial look, but not intentionally.
Yet, Randerson said, she can see it.
“The scale of the armory is perfect for a museum of this size – the scale of the spaces is perfect for a museum of this size.”
People also read…
Placement was a bigger factor than the space itself, said Dana Rosacker, vice chair of the GICM board.
“It’s as close to the heart of the city of Grand Island as you can get,” she said. “It was something very important for the board and the steering committee.”
The Armory Building is on the Old West Potash Highway in Ryder Park. The park is already home to the Bob Sorensen Softball Complex, Tornado Hill, Ryder Park and the baseball stadium.
It’s a good choice, said Jeremy Bachmann, the city’s superintendent of recreation.
“We’re going to update (Ryder Park) with (a) a new inclusive playground and a few other updates. So being right next to the park is just a great idea.”
Rupp said: “When tourists come, or when people come for the fair, or when people come for other big events, to have something else for children and families which is also very rooted here, with a feeling of pride (it’s important).”
Randerson and Rupp are in town for several days to gather ideas, opinions and a sense of belonging.
“The best (children’s museums) are relevant to their own community and expand ideas of what’s in the community, but also reflect the kids here,” Rupp said. “You couldn’t take it and throw it anywhere else.”
“So far we have a really good idea of the importance of the railway, keeping the kids aware of the connection to the river and how important that is to why this place is even here. …and the cranes and the look and feel of this town,” Rupp added.
Randerson said, “The best children’s museums are very particular to their community. They are a reflection of their community. The most successful ones actually meet certain needs of the community.
Some of Grand Island’s needs were supported more strongly than others, Rupp said, pointing to the community’s robust public library.
“The library can do some things that a children’s museum probably wouldn’t choose to do, and vice versa. We’re supporting you in doing this, and you’re supporting us in doing this, let’s not both reinvent that wheel. I think there’s a lot of power there.
There has been a lot of power displayed by the people, that is, the GICM board and its supporters.
The drive to bring a children’s museum to town began in 2019, but was hampered when the pandemic hit. Recently, committees and sub-committees have researched, discussed and explored who is, what is where and when.
Two of the many “who’s” are Randerson and Rupp.
Rosacker said, “Through some research, we were introduced to Jill and Alyssa and had great conversations with them, and ended up hiring them as lead planners.”
The overall total cost to bring the Armory to life is budgeted at $11.3 million, which includes construction, exhibits and endowments, Rosacker said.
The council launched a fundraising campaign and an extensive search for grants. In the meantime, Rosacker said, the city of Grand Island has been among their valued partners.
“We are working closely with the mayor and city administrator to develop the terms of the long-term lease agreement for the use of the Armory building at nominal rent.”
The possibility of buying the Armory has also been suggested, Rosacker said.
Randerson noted community efforts.
“It’s absolutely magical, because it takes such a commitment, such an amount of unpaid, unpaid time for people to commit to it.”
Rupp said making a children’s museum can be difficult.
“If people knew how hard it was going to be, they wouldn’t start. It’s a big commitment, but it’s also so rewarding,” Rupp said. “Come in and their eyes light up and…the buzz, it’s just…you know, there’s nothing like it, knowing you played a part in it.”
Since their visit to the Armory, their role has focused on creating a vision, Rupp said.
“As an outsider, with the mindset of design thinking, you can sometimes bring things to life that people don’t realize are there, just in their day-to-day reality.”
The Armory as it stands is Bachmann’s daily reality.
“I can’t imagine a museum here,” he said, looking inside the Armory. “It’s kind of a shell of a building right now.
“But I’m sure designers and architects can see something that I don’t.”
Jessica Votipka is an education reporter at the Grand Island Independent. She can be reached at 308-381-5420.