Children’s Museum Headed to Historic UWS Church

The future home of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan at the former home of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, at 96th St. and Central Park West. | Photo by Emily Munro

BY REBECCA FIORE | The Children’s Museum of Manhattan recently purchased an historic house of worship for its new location, increasing the museum’s current capacity, with plans to open in late 2021, according to a museum representative.

The museum, along with Sterling National Bank, bought the 361 Central Park West location, at W. 96th St., for $15 million, according to public records filed on Jan. 2 in the Office of the City Register.

The site, which originally housed the First Church of Christ, Scientist, has been a point of interest and contention for real estate developers over the past few years. In June 2016, the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals rejected a plan by two developers to turn the building into a 34-unit residential condominium project.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission designated its exterior in July 1974. The inside was never protected and was subsequently gutted.

Deirdre Lurie, director of strategic communications for the museum, said its current location at 212 W. 83rd St. is 38,000 square feet. The new space is significantly larger at 50,000 square feet, though Lurie noted that the basement and other spaces have yet to be included in the final square foot count and the potential benefits of the structure’s high ceilings have not been fully assessed.

“We are so pleased and proud to be able to keep this architectural gem for public use,” she said.

Lurie explained that the additional space would help the museum to better push its mission along.

“We focus on four key areas that we think are important on how children develop,” she said. “They include arts and creativity, early childhood programming, health education, and cultural literacy. In the current space we can’t necessarily have exhibits on all those things at one time, but we think [with the added space] we can cross-pollinate between exhibits and have more exhibits going on at the same time.”

She said the museum, which has been around since 1973, is moving less than 15 blocks uptown, still remaining on the Upper West Side. The location, she said, is convenient for families, as it is right outside of the 96 St. subway stop, which serves the B and C trains, and is directly across from Central Park.

“It’s right near the subway station, which is great for our audiences,” she said. “We serve all five boroughs, as well as tourists.”

Over the years, attendance at the museum has increased, with it now serving about 375,000 people annually, Lurie said.

“There’s always a lot going on but we can’t do all that we want, it can get very crowded, we don’t have some of the amenities we would like,” she said. “In the new space we hope to reach a slightly older audience, as well, relative to children.”

The museum’s current home on W. 83rd St. | Courtesy of Children’s Museum of Manhattan

In the current space, which the museum has occupied since 1989, there isn’t a permanent performance space.

“We do performances all the time with world-class groups, but we don’t have a specific stage area so we are limited on whom we can bring in,” she said.

Lurie explained that one of the museum’s more popular exhibits, Dynamic H20, which focuses on how the city gets water, is currently staged outdoors and so is seasonal, while in the new space it can be indoors and year-round.

With more gallery space, Lurie said, the museum will be able to display children’s works from their Collage Collaborations program, where a professional artist comes in and works with kids and families to create a wall-sized collage.

“Right now, it’s in the stairwell, but in the new building we could have a gallery and feature it, which would be great for children to see their work displayed in a professional matter,” she said.

Lurie explained that some of the museum’s most groundbreaking exhibits have been ones focused on culture, including “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far,” “Monkey King: A Story from China,” and currently “Hello From Japan.”

A youngster visits the “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far” exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

“Given the diversity of the city, we talked how wonderful it would be to have a variety of exhibits to represent that,” she said.

While an architectural firm hasn’t been hired yet, Lurie said, the museum will be choosing a New York-based firm with experience in landmarked buildings for the 144-year-old structure.

“We are thrilled to have this space and so the expectation is that some of the church’s elements will be preserved. Some of that is because we want [the children] to learn about art and architecture,” Lurie said.

“The fun and learning will continue,” however, at the 83rd St. location until the new space is ready, she added.

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