A Walworth County log cabin built by German immigrants circa the 1830s. A kid-sized hamster wheel projecting out over the lobby from the second level. An old gymnasium floor recovered from a Milwaukee school and reinstalled in a manner that rearranges free-throw lines and other court paint to resemble confetti. Great Lakes buoys. A green roof with trees, gardens, chickens, homing pigeons, a greenhouse, wind turbines, solar panels, rain barrels, a unique perspective on the Capitol and a vista overlooking the north central isthmus and Lake Mendota.
To tour the new home for the Madison Children's Museum as an adult is to crave do-overs on childhood. When it opens in mid-August at 100 N. Hamilton St., parents will at least be able to revisit their youth vicariously, through their children.
With hammers and power saws echoing as contractors race to complete the building's renovation, executive director Ruth Shelly wears an expression of anticipation. Cornering on the Capitol Square near the YWCA and Bartell Theatre, served by more than 20 Madison Metro bus routes, with easy access for pedestrians and cyclists and ample room for expansion, the museum's new location "couldn't be better for us," she says.
The museum owns the entire triangular block bounded by North Hamilton, North Pinckney and East Dayton streets, including a 55-space surface parking lot anchored by the log cabin, which stands as both a landmark for the museum and a one-room site for its history programming. The museum's remodeling of the old Montgomery Ward department store will more than triple the capacity of its previous location on State Street - allowing the museum to bring its entire staff back under one roof for the first time in about 15 years, consolidating its exhibit workshops on-site and accommodating more patrons than ever.
The front entry, facing the Capitol, has been reopened, admitting more light into the lobby. The wow factor takes a steep climb when you look up and see the colossal circular hamster treadmill kids will be able to run on. "We're eager," says Shelly, "to emphasize active play and exercise."
Artistic touches are everywhere. Exhibits director Brenda Baker commissioned 26 artists to render the alphabet's 26 letters. Husband-and-wife children's-book creators Laura Dronzek and Kevin Henkes are contributing a mural. Recovered from a downtown condo, a skylight-shaped mural by Richard Haas depicts the Capitol, Devil's Lake, Taliesin, Wisconsin Dells and other iconic Wisconsin sites to convey a sense of place. Each restroom has a different theme; one is decorated with tiles representing fruits and vegetables.
The early-learning gallery for ages 5 and younger has been conceived as "a global village," Shelly explains, and executed with nontoxic materials sourced within a 100-mile radius of Madison. "You could lick any surface in this area and be perfectly safe," she notes. "Even the paint is all milk-based."
This is in keeping with the museum's green initiatives. They date to 1999, when - out of respect for both environmental and children's health - it switched to using all-natural materials for its exhibits. Sustainability is a cornerstone of the new site, which incorporates LED and other energy-efficient lighting, cell-phone tours of its green features, and restroom fixtures including waterless urinals and recycled partitions.
"The sense of recycled, reclaimed and repurposed materials in here will send a really important message to kids that not everything has to be new," Shelly says, "and that there are stories in objects from the past."
The museum's new home also includes such practical features as quiet places for mothers to nurse their infants, locations where overstimulated kids can go to calm down, an organic cafe, orientation and lunch rooms, and a kitchen where staff and volunteers can share ideas over lunch instead of eating at their desks.
But the cool stuff is relentless: an old pinball machine modified with internal fiber-optic cables that allow players to watch the machine's inner workings; a dentist's chair with a beauty-parlor hood that will trigger different sounds based on its wearer's facial movements; an impressive video-monitor display controlled with joysticks made from things like hockey sticks and shovel handles. The popular Shadow Room is being imported from the museum's State Street location. A collaboration with UW-Madison graduate woodworking students is resulting in a distinctive series of benches integrating art and function.
The building's high-capacity elevator is suitable for bearing large objects but also 30 schoolkids at a time from floor to floor. At the top, it opens onto the museum's green roof. Shelly likens it to a park in the sky. "For us, to get kids up high and give them a view of their community was really important," she says.
The vistas present opportunities to talk about architecture, history and weather. The greenhouse turns the roof into a year-round gardening and urban ecology resource. There will also be a weather station, rainwater harvesting, two giant bird sculptures crafted from recycled materials by large-scale art-welder Dr. Evermor, trees, vegetable and herb gardens, a chicken coop and homing pigeons.
Kia Karlen signed for receipt of four homing pigeons the other day. The Madison Children's Museum education director says the new building has recalibrated the museum's scale of ambitions.
"Getting up on the roof of the building, when we first acquired the property, before there was anything pretty or green up there, was really inspiring to all of us," Karlen says. "A lot of what we're doing has just come from this sort of, 'Hey, I woke up and had this idea: What if we did X?'"
She cites the Philosophone as one result of this dynamic. Recognizing the potential of a 40-year-old phone booth led to a collaboration with cartoonist and radio veteran P.S. Mueller. "Pete has written and recorded a whole bunch of odd, philosophical, paradoxical questions for kids," Karlen explains. "You'll get into this sort of psychedelic phone booth and pick up the old telephone receiver and be posed with these questions." Gomers stalwart Biff Blumfumgagnge, Karlen (an accomplished accordionist and horn player) and her husband, percussionist Geoff Brady, recorded music for the booth.
Karlen says exhibits like this lend the museum an off-kilter, funky atmosphere, less Discovery World than the result of a whole bunch of creative people collaborating to create "a very Madison sort of place."
Madison Children's Museum
100 N. Hamilton St.; 608-256-6445
Museum hours: Hours will be 9:30 am-5 pm daily, with extended hours until 8 pm Thursdays.
Admission: $7 adults and children, $6 seniors and grandparents; $1 for anyone on public assistance; free for children under one year old and for museum members. Free admission for everyone during Twilight Thursdays, 5-8 pm the first Thursday of every month. The entry-level Community Concourse is open to all at no charge.
Grand Opening Celebration
9:30 am-5 pm Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 14-15
9 am parade Saturday followed by ceremonial ribbon-cutting, workshops and demonstrations, music and dance performances; and, on Sunday, a showcase of resident-company envoys from Overture Center for the Arts, plus tours (including one focused on the new museum's impressive collection of works by 100 artists).
The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.
I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?
Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.
Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.
This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"
Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.
This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.
"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.
"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."
"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."
Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."
As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.
Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.
All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.
Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.
The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.
Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.
As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.
For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.
The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.