Suburban Kansas Dream: Museum of Suburbia
By JIM CARLTON October 10, 2012 Wall Street Journal (NY, NY)
OVERLAND PARK, Kan.—More than half of America lives in the suburbs. The others, too, will be able to savor suburbia by coming to this Kansas City, Mo., suburb if local planners have their way.
Museum officials in Johnson County, Kan., propose spending $34 million to create the National Museum of Suburbia, a faux suburb where visitors could wander through a model ranch-style home, wonder at an exhibit of lawn furniture and topple pins on a re-created bowling lane.
Among envisioned exhibits, to be built inside a cavernous former bowling alley and skating rink: a backyard fence with peepholes that let museum visitors spy on fake suburban neighbors played by actors in period suburban clothing.
The planned National Museum on Suburbia will feature artifacts of suburban life, including this 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air.
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“There’s a museum for barbed wire and a museum of light bulbs,” says Larry Meeker, president of the Johnson County Museum Foundation Board, which is pushing the suburb museum, so why not a national museum for suburbia?
“We thought, ‘Why hasn’t someone else thought of that?’ ” he says.
Some locals think they know why not. “I just don’t think it’s a big turn-on to see something you can see every day,” says Steve Rose, a Johnson County publisher of community newspapers and magazines who opposes the museum. “It’s not like you’re visiting ancient Rome.”
Indeed, there is plenty of real suburb in these parts already. Johnson County began turning farmland into subdivisions after World War II, and Overland Park gained national attention in 2009 as home to a suburban housewife on the Showtime series “United States of Tara.”
The suburbia museum’s backers cite a 2010 feasibility study that projects it could draw 60,000 annual visitors paying up to $6 each. The study didn’t assess where visitors would come from, but museum believers say they expect tourists and residents from the nearby metropolis.
Jim Carlton/The Wall Street Journal
Emily Finley and her children enjoy the fishing hole exhibit at a section on suburbia in the Johnson County Museum.
“We want to be one of the local places that Kansas Citians tell visitors: ‘This is a place you’ve got to see,’ ” says Mindi Love, executive director of the Johnson County Museum.
All there is to see just now of the National Museum of Suburbia is a 70,000-square-foot abandoned hulk of a building that once housed King Louie West, a 53-year-old bowling alley that later added a skating rink. Graffiti mars some windows and weeds grow up through the parking lot on the six-acre complex, which closed in 2009.
The Johnson County commissioners paid $2 million for the property in November 2011. After evicting a family of raccoons, they are committing another $1.6 million to clear asbestos and make it fit for humans. County engineers expect that work to begin by year’s end.
County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert says the county bought the property for half of what it was marketed for two years earlier. It plans to relocate its current county museum there and potentially other county offices, and maybe even use the parking lot as a transit yard.
Then the suburbia museum planners must raise another $30 million. The museum’s foundation board began a $19,000 study last month to determine how to raise funds. They expect to need to raise $10 million in private donations while persuading the county to pony up much of the rest.
Backers concede it may be 2018 before the suburbia museum opens its doors, but they do have a vision. The museum board’s wish list includes displays of accouterments of suburban life, including school lunchboxes, electric toasters and camping gear. One proposed exhibit: “A Field Guide to Sprawl.”
Ms. Love, director of the Johnson County Museum, says she envisions restored bowling lanes and replicas of a drive-in movie theater. “We may bring in the smell of popcorn, the sound of kids playing on the [drive-in] playground and you can sit in the back of a car and watch television episodes on the movie screen about suburbia, all the way up to ‘Modern Family.’ “
At the faux backyard fence, visitors would be able to look through knotholes at skits by live actors. “Suburbia is much more complicated than houses on a road,” Ms. Love says. “We want to tell the story of suburbia, the good and the bad.”
The idea gained hold after a county museum in nearby Shawnee, Kan., suffered flood damage in 2009. Curators began looking for a new home for its suburban artifacts, including an exhibit of Tupperware TUP +1.22%and the “All-Electric House,” a model home from the 1950s outside the museum. The museum and the county arts council held a forum to consider the idea of a suburbia museum.
There have been other testimonials to suburbia. In 2009, Rich and Amy Wagner created an online history of their hometown of Levittown, Pa., which became a template for suburbia when it opened in 1952. Bill Owens’ “Suburbia,” a collection of photographs chronicling life in California, is regularly on exhibit nationwide.
At Long Island’s Hofstra University, the National Center for Suburban Studies is dedicated to “promoting objective, academically rigorous study of suburbia’s problems and promise.”
The museum will feature artifacts of suburban life, including this toaster.
Johnson County’s 2010 feasibility study, costing $170,000, projected the suburbia museum could also serve as a place for scholarly study on the subject.
There are naysayers. A suburbia museum “is the wrong museum at the wrong time for the wrong priorities,” says County Commissioner Michael Ashcraft, who cast the lone dissenting vote over the purchase on the five-member panel. He says the spending doesn’t make sense amid cutbacks to libraries and social services.
“I also don’t see people of a young generation darkening the doors of a museum like this,” says Dave Webb, a local auctioneer and former state senator. “You can just put it all online.”
Even some backers aren’t so sure: County Commission Chairman Mr. Eilert, while a proponent of the suburbia museum “as an asset for the county,” says he thinks it’s “problematic” whether the museum can raise enough private donations.
Mr. Meeker, the museum-board president, believes the idea is compelling enough to eventually convince skeptics. “Suburbia is a phenomenon that is unfolding in our own time,” he says. “I’m virtually 100% certain there will be a museum of suburbia.”
Write to Jim Carlton at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared October 10, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Suburban Kansas Dream: Museum of Suburbia.
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