CHAMPAIGN – After 26 years, the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum in Champaign is closing, a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its building is being put up for sale.
Orpheum board president Janet Wattnem says the decision to close was difficult, because they believed the museum provided a valuable resource.
“I think the community deserves a science museum in some form,” said Wattnem. “And so hopefully the mission will be taken up in the future.”
The museum, featuring hands-on, kid-friendly exhibits, was launched in 1994 as a new use for the old Orpheum Theater. The theater was designed by the architectural firm of Rapp & Rapp. The firm, which continues today, was known for its ornate movie palaces, including the Chicago and James M. Nederlander (formerly the Oriental) Theaters in downtown Chicago.
The Orpheum operated as a vaudeville and then a movie theater from 1914 until 1986. After it closed as a movie theater, the city of Champaign purchased the building, and once considered tearing it down for a parking deck. But instead, the Orpheum reopened with a new purpose, with a children’s science museum housed in its storefront and lobby areas.
The Orpheum’s auditorium – modeled after the opera house in Versailles, but at one-third scale – has also been restored. In recent years, it has been rented out for weddings, receptions and other functions. For several years, the Orpheum hosted the annual DoCha Chamber Music Festival.
Operations coordinator Ashley Gregory says that until the pandemic, the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum was reaching about 30,000 children a year.
But the coronavirus outbreak halted activities at the Orpheum. The facility closed to the general public in March. Like the theater, revenue for the children’s museum dried up, as it could no longer host large groups of children, or do outreach work at schools and libraries.
Wattnem says funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, and from private donors, allowed the Orpheum to pay its staff during the early part of the pandemic. But she says those funds were exhausted as the museum moved into the summer.
The summer months are usually the busiest time of the year for the Orpheum, and a time when the museum makes money that helps it stay open the rest of the year. Wattnem says the lack of summer revenue, combined with the expense of maintaining a 106-year-old building, made it impossible for the Orpheum to continue.
“Without those revenue streams, it’s become much more difficult to care for the building as should be,” said Wattnem. “And hence our decision that we need to close, and put the building up for sale.”
Wattnem says the museum board has long accepted a role as the Orpheum building’s caretaker. But she says a lot of museum revenue has had to be diverted over the years to the ongoing costs of maintenance and repair.
“And honestly, the building has become a limiting factor in the development and the kind of exhibits that we can feature in our museum,” said Wattnem, who adds that the coronavirus closure has meant they cannot currently give the building the care it needs.
Now, the museum board plans to put the Orpheum theater building up for sale. But first, the facility will host a final round of summer science camps for children until the end of July. Ashley Gregory, the operations coordinator, says that because of coronavirus concerns, the program is limited to nine children per week-long session.
Once the Orpheum closes completely, Wattnem says she can’t predict what will happen. But she hopes the museum, or one like it, can reopen in the future, perhaps at another location.
In addition to holding its previously scheduled summer camps, a statement on the Orpheum’s website says memberships are being upgrade,to allow members to visit other museums.
Follow Jim at @WILLJimMeadows.