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Charleston children's museum, reopening Saturday, 'just getting started' with renovations

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Children's Museum of the Lowcountry renovation

The Children's Museum of the Lowcountry will reopen Saturday after a seven-week, $550,000 renovation phase. Provided/Leigh Webber via Children's Museum of the Lowcountry

When families walk into the newly renovated Children's Museum of the Lowcountry this weekend, they'll be stepping into a lighter, brighter and more updated space.

That's the hope of director Nichole Myles. 

"I think people immediately are going to think, 'This feels so different,'" Myles said Friday as workers rushed in and out of the Ann Street building, hauling exhibit pieces back to their proper places. 

After completing about $550,000 worth of projects during the seven-week renovation, the museum reopens Saturday at 9 a.m.

Though some major improvements were made during this renovation — including new heating and cooling systems, the building's first real ceiling and completely made-over bathrooms — it's only the first phase of a much larger plan for the museum's future.

"We're just getting started," Myles said. 

Next up is the construction of an indoor-outdoor play pavilion and the creation of several new exhibits.  

Detailed planning has already been done for those additions, which include an earth and space room, a child-friendly makerspace, a Spoleto Festival-inspired performing arts room and even a "don't touch the floor" room where, using technology, the floor could actually look like lava.  

The timeline for the second, more ambitious round of renovations will depend on fundraising, Myles said.

The renovations, including those completed this week, will total over $6 million. With $2.1 million already raised and about $2.9 million that organizers hope to receive in tax credits, they're looking at around half a million dollars that still needs to be raised. 

Cost estimates have changed some of the museum's original plans for the expansion, Myles said. 

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Charleston's Board of Architectural Review approved plans in 2017 for a two-story building that would go next to the existing structure. But the cost of building materials went up so much since those plans were drawn that they felt it "wasn't the best use of donors' contributions," Myles said.

Instead, she said, the museum hopes to build an open pavilion with a very similar design. It would likely include some climate-control elements, such as fans during the summertime, to make it a feasible space for year-round use. 

In the meantime, Myles said she hopes the renovations being unveiled this weekend will get visitors excited about what's to come. 

The phase completed Friday is the first major renovation done to the building since the museum opened about 15 years ago. 

While the building was closed for the renovation work, staff members operated a temporary satellite location out of the Citadel Mall. About 6,000 people visited, which prompted some thoughts, Myles said, about opening a long-term secondary facility. 

"That's a really strong indicator that it could be a successful model for us," she said. 

The Children's Museum of the Lowcountry is a very high-density facility in terms of guest-to-square-foot ratio, Myles said. The long, narrow building, which was originally built as a train shed in 1859, is just about 10,000 square feet, and it welcomes an estimated 130,000 visitors in a year. 

Though some tourists come to the museum, the majority of that demand is local. About 80 percent of the museum's visitors are from South Carolina, with the vast majority of those coming from the tri-county area. 

As those improvements are made and exhibits are added, they'll try to keep as much of the museum open as possible, Myles said, and, if a closure is necessary — which is likely, since the building's narrow hall-like setup isn't conducive to closing off one room at a time — they'll look into opening a pop-up location again.

Accessibility is a priority for the museum in several ways, Myles said. It's part of the Museums for All program, a network of children's museums that gives free or reduced admission to families who receive SNAP benefits. 

It also hosts SuperStar Sundays, when families with children with special needs can visit before regular hours for free. 

Children and guardians who use wheelchairs will notice something important about the completed renovations, too, Myles said. Their redone bathrooms are much more accessible, she said. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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