Children’s Museum gets set for new home in City Park

Julia Bland’s office at the Louisiana Children’s Museum has all the hallmarks of a school principal’s office. The big wooden desk and accordion folders full of paperwork are offset by children’s artwork, exposed pipes painted bright green and orange, and the thump, thump, thump of toddlers tromping on the floor above.

Bland herself seems perfectly suited to the schoolhouselike setting. As she describes it, her mission as head of this particular museum is less that of curator and more that of educator. She lays stress on the work her 17-member staff does at schools around the city as part of grant-funded initiatives aimed at improving literacy and fighting childhood obesity, among other causes.

“We have a belief that all children are born full of potential,” Bland said. “And this is a way to help that potential be realized for some children who may not be able to make it here to this building.”

These days, though, another mission is taking up a lot of Bland’s time, and it has everything to do with the museum’s physical space, currently a three-story building in the Warehouse District but soon — if all the necessary funding comes through — a more expansive, open-air setting along the bayou in City Park.

The Children’s Museum, after years of planning, is closer than ever to picking up and moving for the first time since its founding on Julia Street in 1986. It plans to trade in the chic Warehouse District for an 8.5-acre campus near the New Orleans Museum of Art and the City Park festival grounds.

Bland cautioned that the architects, from the Seattle-based firm Mithun, working with Waggonner & Ball in New Orleans, are still finalizing details, but the available renderings show a low-slung, modern-looking structure with two separate, rectangular wings running parallel to each other and connected by a walkway. The new site will be known as the Early Learning Village.

From above, the new building will look like a big H that’s been pinched at one end, with one leg jutting slightly out over the water. In any case, it will be a sharp departure from the imposing brick edifice the museum occupies today, which is slated for eventual sale.

The existing museum covers a broad spectrum. It has an art studio, a small library, a mock grocery store and an exhibit on vision that comes with real optometrist equipment and a chance to see the world through a bug’s eyes.

But it does not have the outdoors. The new location will have plenty of that.

“One of the things that was important to us was to think about really beautiful space and to communicate to children that they’re valued in such a way that some of the most beautiful land in southeast Louisiana is designated for them,” Bland said. “It really becomes a value statement. Toward a child and toward a family with young children, to say, ‘This is for you; we care about you and we believe in you and we’re investing in you.’ ”

The idea of moving to City Park has been in the works for years. Bland first talked with the park’s CEO, Bob Becker, in 2007. That soon after Hurricane Katrina, the park was still a shambles, she recalled: “I remember him saying, ‘If we don’t get some help from the Legislature, we’re going to have to close in three months.’ ”

But the park did have a master plan for rebuilding, and that plan included bringing in as many as four new “cultural attractions,” so there was a place for the Children’s Museum if it could raise the funds.

The new location will cost about $22 million to build, Bland said, with about $17 million coming from the state’s capital budget and the rest from private donors. Overall, she has about $21 million committed to the project.

Bland said construction is slated to take about 18 months, with completion expected sometime in 2018. That would place the project among the multiple endeavors Mayor Mitch Landrieu is hoping to have wrapped up by then in order to show off the city during its tricentennial.

“We’ve done a really good job of branding New Orleans as an adult-friendly place,” Bland said. “Part of our goal here is to help brand it as a family-friendly city.”