A grand new Please Touch ready to open in the park

Posted: October 12, 2008

More than 30 years after starting life in a small corner of another museum, and after a difficult decade toddling around Philadelphia in search of bigger digs, the Please Touch Museum is home.

On Saturday, the museum will throw open the doors to Memorial Hall, the hulking souvenir of the 1876 Centennial Exposition that Please Touch has renovated as part of an ambitious - and, as it turns out, challenging - $88 million campaign.

With this move, Please Touch brings Philadelphia into the big leagues of the splashy, nationally ranked children's museums of Indianapolis, San Jose, Calif., and Houston. And now, in terms of size, variety of exhibits, quality, and amount of time spent in a visit, Please Touch aims to leapfrog to the front of the line of most-admired experiences for children.

Fairmount Park might not bring the built-in visitorship that Please Touch would have had in an enormous shopping mall on Penn's Landing, the originally envisioned site. It lacks the glassine waterfront and glassy skyline of the Boston Children's Museum. Its curb appeal is monochromatic and conservative next to the 8.1 million canary-yellow exterior tiles and environmental correctness of Rafael Viñoly's recent expansion of the Brooklyn Children's Museum.

But it is infused with something decidedly Philadelphia: history and its more solicitous cousin, nostalgia. Children older than Please Touch's traditional constituency (ages 2 to 7) will find exhibits aimed at them, including displays about the 1876 Centennial and a sprawling model of Fairmount Park as it appeared for that early world's fair.

Parents for whom childhood in Philadelphia fell between the 1960s and the early '90s might thrill to the set from Captain Noah and His Magical Ark, the popular local TV show, or, for a slightly older set, the monorail from the John Wanamaker toy department. Both have found a new context in Please Touch (though the monorail doesn't actually run). It's clear that if Philadelphia is the capital of the nostalgia belt, Memorial Hall is its new statehouse.

Not that children are neglected. The new Please Touch experience - its architecture by Kise, Straw & Kolodner and museum exhibits by vice president Willard Whitson - is a mix of old favorites such as the toddler-size SEPTA bus that children love to pretend to drive, and spectacular new sections where visitors can go down a dark rabbit hole with Alice in Wonderland, take flight in a miniature plane, or construct a working dam.

Please Touch also has built a new structure on the side of Memorial Hall to house the lavishly restored 1924 Woodside Park Dentzel carousel, on loan from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Though children will certainly constitute most of its ridership, carousel buffs will likely cheer the return of an important local specimen.

All this represents enormous institutional growth for Please Touch, which was founded in 1976 by Montessori educator Portia Sperr in what was initially a 2,200-square-foot space.

The museum's annual budget will more than double, to $9 million from $4 million. Its new exhibitions area is three times larger: 38,000 square feet in Memorial Hall, compared with the 11,000 left behind in its former home on North 21st Street. And if museum leaders are right, attendance will nearly triple, to 480,000 a year from the current 180,000.

It's that last prediction that, once again, gives critics pause. Brooklyn's children's museum, for instance, hopes that its showy expansion, which opened in September, will merely double attendance to 400,000 a year.

How many visitors will pay to come through Memorial Hall isn't just a figure for idle speculation. Please Touch borrowed heavily, $60 million, to finance the $88 million project. And while much of that $88 million has been raised from donors, the campaign, staring down a long road in a decidedly damaged economy, is still $16 million short.

With about 70 percent of its operating costs covered by ticket sales and a very small endowment, Please Touch is highly dependent on the gate. Visitors will bear the cost of the improved experience: Admission will go up to $15 from $10.95, and the cost of membership will rise substantially (though memberships will be for 15 months rather than a year, as previously).

Those higher ticket prices will help pay the debt. The financing of the project is complex, but one way to think about it is that about $7 from each visitor will go toward its debt payments of $3.4 million a year.

But, as president Nancy D. Kolb might be the first to admit, Please Touch hasn't gotten to Memorial Hall by being risk-averse. Back in 2001, when the museum was planning to be part of a $329 million Penn's Landing development in the company of FAO Schwarz and Pottery Barn, it was widely criticized for selling off its identity. In exchange for $5 million from McDonald's, it was to have changed its name to Please Touch Museum Presented by McDonald's Kids Charities.

In what was called a separate deal, McDonald's also was awarded a 20-year contract for food services at the now-scratched Penn's Landing site.

The museum's public image took a beating, and Please Touch came out of the Penn's Landing deal with tangible damage. It spent $10 million on the project it will never see again.

Kolb is philosophical about it all: Penn's Landing was a necessary detour, she likes to say. It got the city to understand the potential for a children's museum, and now Please Touch has done it right.

The payoff moment for Kolb came on a preview day for members this month when the first visitors came through the door.

"All of us watched as the first kid walked in, looked around at the Great Hall, and said, 'Wow.' The entire staff had tears in their eyes."


A Museum Move Adds Up

The Please Touch funding campaign stands at $72.04 million, including $5.5 million anticipated from sale of the 21st Street property. Following are costs and funding, including donations of $500,000 or more.

Project costs

Construction $44.6 million

Consultant fees (legal, historic, marketing and business) $11.4 million

Penn's Landing project $10 million

Moving, fund-raising, marketing and opening festivities $9.8 million

Visitor experience (including exhibits and carousel) $9.8 million

Furniture, fixtures and equipment $2 million

Permits and remediation $400,000

TOTAL: $88 million

Funding sources

Government funds

State: $19,750,000

Federal: $7,084,723

Local: $5,500,000

Major donations

Dorrance H. Hamilton: $5 million

William Penn Foundation: $2.8 million

Hamilton Family Foundation: $2 million

Pew Charitable Trusts: $2 million

Wachovia Bank: $1.5 million

Annenberg Foundation: $1.5 million

Delaware River Port Authority:$1.5 million

Toyota: $1.1 million

Bill and Susan Shea: $1 million

Anonymous donor: $1 million

Phoebe W. Haas Charitable Trust A (as recommended by Carole Haas Gravagno): $1 million

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: $850,000

Philadelphia Foundation: $840,000

Arcadia Foundation: $750,000

McDonald's Corp.: $730,000

Elizabeth R. Moran: $600,000

Independence Foundation: $525,000

Connelly Foundation: $500,000

Albert M. Greenfield Foundation: $500,000

Hess Foundation: $500,000

Independence Blue Cross: $500,000

Robert McNeil: $500,000

TOTAL RAISED TO DATE: $72.04 million

LEFT TO RAISE: $15.96 million

SOURCE: Please Touch Museum


Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch.

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