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Explorastorium, a 'Disneyland' museum for children's books, finds a home in North KC

The Rabbit Hole's Explorastorium, an interactive storybook museum, will be located just north of downtown in North Kansas City.
The Rabbit Hole's Explorastorium, an interactive storybook museum, will be located just north of downtown in North Kansas City.

Kansas City is one step closer to having a national children's book museum.

The Rabbit Hole, a nonprofit that seeks to inspire the reading lives of children and adults, has purchased a building at 919 E. 14th Ave. in North Kansas City.

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The Rabbit Hole recently purchased a 165,000-square-foot warehouse at 919 E. 14th Ave. in North Kansas City with the intention of transforming it into a national museum that celebrates children's literature. The Rabbit Hole

The 165,000-square-foot warehouse is the future home of the Explorastorium, an interactive museum that celebrates children's literature. Plans include galleries that bring storybooks to life, a printing press, theater and bookstore.

Rabbit Hole co-founder Pete Cowdin says the Explorastorium's ever-changing exhibits will be fabricated by local artists and inspired by beloved books. Imagine wandering through Max's house from "Where the Wild Things Are."

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Deb Pettid and husband Pete Cowdin co-founded the Rabbit Hole, a Kansas City nonprofit organization that celebrates and inspires the reading life of children and adults. They had a temporary workshop on Southwest Boulevard decorated with sculptures of famous storybook characters and a mural of the Rabbit Hole’s future “Explorastorium." ALLISON LONG along@kcstar.com

Cowdin envisions the Explorastorium as an immersive attraction similar to the City Museum in St. Louis or Meow Wolf, which has locations in Denver, Las Vegas and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Cowdin and his wife, Deb Pettid, previously owned Brookside's Reading Reptile bookstore, which they closed in 2016 to focus on Rabbit Hole. The store, open for nearly three decades, hosted hundreds of authors and was named the best children’s bookstore in the country in 2005.

The couple opened a temporary exhibit that same year in downtown KC to show what the Explorastorium could be.

They are now working with an architect to draw plans for the first two floors and basement. The building, a former tin can factory, needs new elevators and an HVAC system.

The attraction could open as early as next year, but there's a lot to do before then. If all goes as planned, construction should start this summer.

Deb Pettid and Pete Cowdin offer a glimpse of The Rabbit Hole, a national, immersive museum of children's literature (Video by Shane Keyser | skeyser@kcstar.com).

Cowdin calls the warehouse "the perfect site and space" for the Explorastorium. But he initially envisioned the museum in downtown Kansas City or the Crossroads Arts District.

"We got priced out," he says. "And frankly, they're running out of buildings in Kansas City of the size and character we were looking for."

Now that the Rabbit Hole has secured a building for its museum, the nonprofit is in fundraising mode. Cowdin says the project has raised around $2.5 million, with the ultimate goal of $12 million.

"We still have a pretty big hill ahead of us," he says.

That's why the Rabbit Hole is skipping a LitFestKC children's book festival in 2018.

Cowdin hopes that having a building will help with fundraising. The project has also been awarded $2 million in tax credits from the Missouri Development Finance Board. The credits provide financial incentives to donors and could help generate as much as $4 million.

The Rabbit Hole is seeking donations from foundations and trusts as well as individuals. Those who contribute $100 for a "foundling membership" get perks such as free coffee from local coffee shops, appetizers at restaurants, tickets to plays and invites to hardhat tours of the Explorastorium and other special events.

The Explorastorium already has the support of several famous children's book authors who got to know Pettid and Cowdin through the Reading Reptile.

Brian Selznick, the author and illustrator of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," called the museum "a brilliant idea" last year.

"Being able to walk into the physical space created by the imaginary world of a book is really magical," Selznick said.

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Plans for the entrance of the Rabbit Hole's Exploratorium include a door that looks like it leads into a burrow. The Rabbit Hole

"Ivy and Bean" illustrator Sophie Blackall said the Explorastorium would be "like Disneyland, but without the commercial aspect, and with books." And Jon Scieszka, author of "The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales," said it would be "a feather in the cap of Kansas City."

For now, the museum exists mainly in the minds of Cowdin, Pettid, and everyone willing to follow them down the Rabbit Hole to a place where fiction and reality coexist.

"We're doing something that's never been done in Kansas City," Cowdin says.

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