Joco Opinion

Steve Rose — Suburbia museum is an idea whose time hasn’t come

The National Museum of Suburbia is officially dead, at least in Johnson County.

So declared Johnson County Chairman Ed Eilert at a recent county budget meeting. He said the museum of suburbia needed to be “off the table,” and no other commissioner expressed any disagreement. He reconfirmed to me recently that he, indeed, means that the museum of suburbia was a dead concept in Johnson County.

The Museum of Suburbia had more than its share of skeptics from the beginning, including me, when I wrote that it was a “fantasy, rather than a dream.” Eilert himself was doubtful from the beginning that such a concept could attract the $10 million needed to bring it to reality.

The Museum of Suburbia died with hardly a whimper, in sharp contrast to the notoriety it received over the past couple of years. That included a front page article in the Wall Street Journal, which was a bit tongue-in-cheek.

So much for expensive feasibility studies that indicated it would be doable to raise $10 million.

Still, the “father” of the idea, Larry Meeker, president of the Johnson County Museum Foundation, believes a museum of suburbia will be built…somewhere. He said so in the Wall Street Journal article, and he repeated it again to me very recently: “I’m virtually certain there will be a museum of suburbia.”

I could not disagree more, but kicking an idea when it’s down is not the polite thing to do. So, we’ll let it go.

The focus now should be on the former King Louie bowling alley at 87th Street and Metcalf Avenue, which the county purchased two years ago to house a regular kind of historical museum of Johnson County, currently located in an old flooded house in Shawnee.

The building is 76,000 square feet and will cost the county, all-in, including acquisition costs and improvements, a total of $15.6 million.

Of that space, a fourth of it will go to house the exhibits of the present museum, which tells the history of this county, from American Indians to the postwar suburban explosion.

Meeker, who now is turning his attention to the current historical museum, said he and the foundation board are committed to raising $2 million to enhance the exhibits, including making the museum more “kid friendly.” We shall see. The Johnson County Museum Foundation has never raised more than $38,000 in any year.

That leaves three-fourths of King Louie to fill.

The county is moving into the facility The Enterprise Center of Johnson County, which needs 13,500 square feet, plus 3,000 square feet for early voting —now at Metcalf South Shopping Center. That leaves a whole bunch of empty space that may someday house other county agencies or an expanded museum.

Of course, at one time the National Museum of Suburbia might have been an anchor tenant, but Eilert says he never figured on that when he recommended to the County Commission that they buy the building. Rather Eilert thinks they got a steal on the building, at just a bit more than half the asking price.

Eilert is one of the most frugal public officials around. His track record proves that.

So, when Eilert says the purchase and improvements of this “iconic” bowling alley was a good deal, you may have to take a leap of faith that he is right.