A children’s museum planned for downtown Roanoke took root with a young business owner’s wish to honor his grandparents.
Center in the Square intends to open the Don and Barbara Smith Children’s Museum of Western Virginia this year in the third-floor space that housed the History Museum of Western Virginia. Center will operate the children’s museum, said President and General Manager Jim Sears.
The museum, to be called KidsSquare for short, is still more concept than concrete. It would host activities catering to children from toddlers up to age 10 and their parents. Center intends to hire a children’s museum manager in the near future, Sears said.
As for the museum’s namesakes, Don Smith, 81, the retired CEO and chairman of the board of Roanoke Electric Steel, has a long history of philanthropy in the Roanoke Valley. He and his wife, Barbara, also raised a family of five kids and 14 grandchildren, said Barry Wirt, one of those grandchildren.
Wirt, a Center in the Square board member, got to surprise his grandparents last summer with the news about the new museum’s name.
“We were just absolutely delighted,” Don Smith said. “It’s a wonderful thing for us and all of our children.”
The president of a Roanoke life insurance company, Wirt, 32, joined Center’s board in the spring of 2016. Hoping to honor his grandparents, he first looked into raising funds for the naming rights to an overlook on Center’s garden roof.
Yet the good will his grandparents have garnered in the community created an opportunity Wirt had not originally expected. Wirt realized that the contributions that donors were willing to make to honor the Smiths could be used to fund something bigger.
Center’s board was already looking into the feasibility of a children’s museum but didn’t have the money to move forward with the idea. Wirt realized that he had “a chance to do something really special,” he said, and help make the proposed museum reality.
He declined to discuss the exact amount raised so far. “We raised enough to guarantee that the museum will be opening,” he said.
The KidsSquare committee has visited about 15 children’s museums across the country, scouting for exhibition ideas, Sears said. One thing all the museums have had in common, he said, was that “all have been packed with kids.”
Center created the successful Roanoke Pinball Museum in 2015, and hopes for similar success with KidsSquare, not just as a new revenue source but as a boost for the arts organizations under Center’s roof.
“I think it’s important to note that the children’s museum will be bringing new attendance to Center in the Square,” Sears said. “We see it as an experience that everyone will benefit from.”
Center provides low-cost or rent-free space to seven arts nonprofits: Mill Mountain Theatre, Harrison Museum of African American Culture, Historical Society of Western Virginia, Science Museum of Western Virginia, Opera Roanoke, Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and Roanoke Ballet Theatre.
Ideally, Center’s member organizations will be represented by performances and exhibits of their own within KidsSquare.
“I’ve had conversations with the other museums under Center’s umbrella,” Sears said. “They all have indicated an interest in participating in the children’s museum.”
Architects will survey the third-floor space to determine what changes might be needed once the history museum has vacated.
Housed on that floor for 33 years, the history museum is going to be combined with the O. Winston Link Museum in the old Norfolk & Western passenger station building at 101 Shenandoah Ave. N.E. The Historical Society of Western Virginia, which operates both museums, chose to consolidate them as a cost-saving measure in the face of shrinking revenues.
Center also owns the passenger station.
The historical society must dismantle its $1.1 million permanent exhibition, “Crossroads of History.” Parts of it will be set up in the Link Museum building. The society has taken down some Link Museum exhibits to make room for the history museum displays, society board President Stephen Warren has said.
Thursday, the history museum said farewell to a storied item in its collection. A century-old moonshine still from Patrick County that had been displayed as part of “Crossroads of History” was handed over to the Patrick County Historical Society.
The historical society’s goal is to finish the move from the third floor by the end of the month, Sears said.
The late Jack Hancock, founder of Roanoke Electric Steel, was a guiding force in the creation of Center in the Square 34 years ago. Don Smith described receiving a call from Hancock’s daughters about the children’s museum. She told him, “Dad would have been so proud of you.”
His own grandchildren have told him about taking their kids to Amazement Square, the children’s museum in Lynchburg. He spoke warmly about the notion of his great-grandchildren playing at the Roanoke museum: “I think that probably they’re just the right age to jump in there.”