A palm to the Children’s Museum of Phoenix for saving downtown’s Monroe School

Considering all the public whimpering and hair-tearing I've done about the routine razing of really great old buildings, I have to hand a palm to the folks at the Children's Museum of Phoenix, which has made its new home in downtown's historic Monroe School. Rather than plow down this imposing old structure, someone saw fit to save it; to make it useful again rather than knocking it over to make room for another glass-and-slump-block monstrosity.

This gorgeous Classic Revival-style, three-story brick building at Seventh Street and Van Buren was designed by Los Angeles architect Norman Marsh and built in 1913. Thousands of elementary school students were educated there, but the city's urban-renewal exodus of the 1960s depleted the school's enrollment, and it was closed in 1972. The building was remodeled for use as a Department of Defense recruiting center before shutting down for good in 1998.

Previously, the children's museum was a gypsy, traveling from school to school and other venues to introduce art to youngsters across the Valley. The new museum was conceived in 1998 by local mom/activist Kim van der Veen and a group of other like-minded people. In 2001, a voter bond issue provided $10.5 million for what was then being called the Arizona Family Museum; half of that money was spent to buy the 55,000-square-foot vacant Monroe School building.

Frankly, I don't care what they put into the Monroe School; a shoe store or a free clinic would have been fine. I'm just glad someone saved it. Although the interior of the museum has been modified to accommodate its numerous kid-friendly exhibits, many of its most handsome original elements remain. The gorgeous oak floors are the same ones laid down in 1913, and they're in great shape, thanks to a restoration funded by a State Heritage grant. The giant north and south stairwells feature their original banisters, and the wooden beams in every room have been walnut-shell-blasted back to their original finish. And everywhere I looked, I saw exposed brick — the building's skeleton, stacked high nearly a hundred years ago.

I think it's great that the school has been repurposed in a way that will serve kids, just as it once did — even though I didn't find the museum especially museum-y, so to speak, when I visited there.

I don't know what I was expecting, but for my money ($9 per person for anyone older than 12 months), I guess I thought there'd be more of an emphasis on education and culture and less on running around playing with stuff. I took Justin, a 7-year-old I borrowed from his father, a pal of mine I'll call Dan. Justin had been to the Heard Museum and was worried that we were going to "have to look at a bunch of old paintings and Indian pots again." I lectured him on the importance of culture, and assured him that this museum would be more kid-oriented while also being educational.

As it turned out, I was only half-right. The Children's Museum of Phoenix is a crapload of fun, especially if you're a little kid who likes to make salad out of fabric swatches or glue glitter onto a paper plate. Justin and I stared with wonder at a whole wall of glittery CDs suspended from the ceiling, and we pushed our way through the Noodle Forest, a thicket of towering Styrofoam tubes. Later we played Restaurant, one of my own favorite childhood games, in the Texture Café. I served Justin a slice of pizza made from bits of felt, but he was churlish. He picked off his polyester pepperoni slices and demanded a refund. I offered instead a cotton-blend and corduroy ice cream sundae, but he just rolled his eyes.

Where was the Stonehenge Room, where children might be encouraged to build a monolith while a docent described the history of Wiltshirian monuments? Why wasn't there an exhibit of origami, say, where kids could make a clever little crane while a nice Eurasian lady explained the social relevance of the Oriental art of paper folding?

While Justin barged his way into the "3 and Under" room, I went looking for artists' statements or wall cards explaining the cultural significance of noodle forests or the history of pretend food in Medieval art. Nothing.

Still, the museum gets points with its attention to the significance of its new old home. An ongoing project called Monroe School Stories will collect oral histories of former students of the school and link them to a multigenerational treasure hunt throughout the public spaces of the museum. And each of the docents I spoke to knew all about the place, right down to the square footage and the year it was built.

And, anyway, what do I know about kids? Maybe they don't want the museum's $3.5 million annual budget to be spent on cultural stuff. I asked Justin if he thought he'd like to visit the museum again, and Dan, who'd come to retrieve his son, answered for him. "No way. It's too far to drive to just to do finger-painting and whatever. He does that stuff at day camp all summer long."

Dan and his wife and kid live in the suburbs, and think of downtown as a slightly scary place that shouldn't be visited after nightfall. Which got me to wondering if this was such a great location for a place aimed at children, most of whom live in the suburbs, far away from downtown. It seems unlikely that kids 10 and younger will be allowed to hop on the light rail, once it's finished, and head for a downtown museum that isn't really a museum. East Valley suburbanites have the Arizona Museum for Youth (35 North Robson Street), and it seems likely that folks from the Northwest Valley will likely journey all the way to a "safe" place (read: another city overrun with suburban enclaves) like Mesa than risk the perceived dangers of scary downtown.

But I don't really care all that much. All I know is it's less likely that anyone will be tearing down an old building that the city just dumped $10 million into. Let's hear it for Noodle Forests.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela