Proposal to Move the Museum
In 1967 the board of trustees briefly contemplated moving The Children’s Museum from its home at Meridian and 30th streets to the former J.K. Lilly estate at Michigan Road and 38th Street in Indianapolis. Tempted by an offer from the Indianapolis Museum of Art (which was leaving its longtime home at 16th and Pennsylvania streets) to become part of cultural complex on the 56-acre estate, the trustees seriously considered the possibility.
But fate intervened in the form of the donation of the Samuel Rauh house. A branch of the Indianapolis Public Library to which the Rauh family had lent their former home, the property was donated to the museum when Library officials closed the branch. With that in hand and the willingness of the owners of another adjacent property to sell, the museum suddenly had room to expand. The trustees turned down the art museum’s offer.
Fundraising and Construction
After several years of planning, in December 1972 the museum announced a $7-million fundraising campaign, which Lilly Endowment kicked off with a $3.5 million grant—at the time, the largest single grant it had given to any organization. Other key donors included $1 million each from Eli and Ruth Lilly, as well as $1 million from the Krannert Charitable Trust. In the end the campaign exceeded its goal, raising nearly $8.8 million.
On a September morning in 1973, museum director Mildred Compton, board president George Varnes, and Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar broke ground for the museum’s new home. The construction process, which involved building a new five-story structure and tearing down the museum’s existing buildings, took nearly three years.
The result was a 203,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building with ramps connecting its five levels and winding around a central core capped with a skylight. There were eight major gallery areas, a 350-seat theater, classrooms, offices, and specially designed areas for carpentry, painting, photography, and exhibit design. On the top level was what would become one of the museum’s iconic attractions—an operating Carousel. Architects for the building were the Indianapolis firm Wright, Porteous, and Lowe.
The night before the building’s public opening, First Lady Betty Ford toured the new facility guided by students from a nearby elementary school. In keeping with the spirit of the place, the next morning, Oct. 2, 1976, Compton was joined for the official opening by 6-year-old Brett Schneider, winner of a poster contest the museum had conducted to mark its new facility. Snipping the Chinese paper chain draped across the doors, they entered the building that to this day, even after multiple expansions and remodels, remains the heart of The Children’s Museum.