"You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out. You put your right foot in and you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey and turn yourself about. That's what it's all about." Children, including third- and fifth-graders from the Woodland School, sang the familiar song as they anxiously awaited a grand tour of the Long Island Children's Museum's (LICM) new 40,000-square-foot facility Garden City opening Feb. 27.
LICM Executive Director Bonnie Dixon and Board of Trustees President Robert Lemle of Old Westbury thank Thomas Gulotta, the former county executive who was very instrumental in the project during his tenure. Credit: Margaret Whitely
Old Westbury resident Robert Lemle, a senior vice president for Cablevision, is a founding member of the museum and current president of the museum's board of trustees. His wife, Roni Kohen-Lemle, a musician and jazz singer, co-designed the museum's interactive exhibit gallery 'mUSic.'
Lemle described the new museum as more than just a building, but an educational and cultural institution that is increasingly becoming a part of Long Island's social fabric. "This is an engaging, comfortable and safe place where families from all of our diverse communities and of all different abilities can share experiences. In that sense, the museum is a community center or town square," he said.
"The giggles and voices of children in our hallways again is such a beautiful sound," Museum Executive Director Bonnie Dixon said.
"As you may know, LICM started with a small prototype on Stewart Avenue to demonstrate the need for a children's museum on Long Island. We hoped for 25,000 visitors a year, but saw 25,000 in our first four months. This 40,000-square foot space, eight times larger than our little prototype, allows us to offer much more to the families of Long Island - more exhibits, more workshops, more cultural performances."
LICM officially closed its former 5,400-square foot Stewart Avenue site Oct. 28, 2001 to make way for its relocation. When Nassau County offered LICM a 60-year, no-cost lease in the historic airplane hangar at Garden City's Mitchel Field, museum officials, realizing it could no longer serve all those who wanted to visit, seized the opportunity to grow. The building was entirely renovated with a $17 million capital campaign, $14 million of which has already been raised. Nassau County will maintain the roads, parking lots and exterior landscaping of the building.
Although attendance was booming, only 98 people at a time could safely enjoy what the Stewart Avenue site had to offer. Now, the larger building can accommodate 1,000 visitors at any one time.
A major capital campaign, dubbed "Moving to Grow," enabled the hangar to transform into an interactive museum for children of all ages. "During our test drives over the past two weekends, we were pleased to note that older children seemed to be having a wonderful time as well and that's because the new exhibits are complex enough to appeal to them. Though the experience of a 12-year-old and the experience of a 5-year-old may not be the same, they will both be fully engaged," Dixon said.
Lemle, a senior vice president for Cablevision, thanked Dixon for seeing this momentous project through. "Not only was she guiding our little museum on Stewart Avenue, which was in itself a full-time job, we then came to her and said we have this 'little' 40,000-square foot project we'd like you to handle too. And she did with amazing perseverance."
Dixon, who thanked all who made the museum what it is today, including its enthusiastic administration and staff, noted that Lemle really paid attention. "He's paid attention moment by moment to this museum from its modest beginnings on Stewart Avenue to this magnificent building today. He helped build a board with representatives from education and real estate, finance, public relations, the arts and the legal profession. He was intensely involved in the architecture and exhibits committee. He is a tireless fundraiser and a great mentor to me."
Local politicians, including former Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta, who was later applauded for his work with the museum during his tenured position, mingled with enthusiastic LICM administration during the grand opening.
Town of Hempstead Supervisor Rich Guardino, who brought his wife, Monica and 4-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Mary, to the opening, said LICM is a wonderful community asset. "It's an indication of what we can do when we have a private-public partnership. I would like to recognize Tom Gulotta for the work he did in putting this together and in making sure it would become something viable. I also know County Executive Tom Suozzi's commitment to the future of this museum.
"I was at the Stewart Avenue opening years ago with my wife, Monica and I guess it inspired us because now we come to this opening with our 4-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Mary. This is such a great environment for kids and is truly a learning laboratory and a stimulating area where we can bring our children," he said.
A group of parents, educators, artists and business leaders, including Lisa Greene, current board of trustees vice president; Jill and Al Jarnow, Richard Hamburger and Robert and Roni Lemle, current board of trustees president and past president respectively, founded LICM back in 1993 as a demonstration site for the first children's museum on the Island.
Current County Executive Thomas Suozzi also applauded Gulotta's continuous support along with the hundreds of dedicated people who care about the future of today's children. "I have done nothing to contribute to the success of this project but hundreds of other people did," he admitted.
"I was speaking before with Robert [Lemle] and Lisa [Green] and they talked about the fact that when they first started envisioning this idea, their children were 6 and 3 years old. Today their children are in college. That means 13 years ago this project started and it's because of people who care about Nassau County, care about their hometown and want it to be an even more exciting place to live."
Living by the idea that children learn best by touching, seeing and doing, the museum offers 12 exhibit galleries, three learning studios for workshops and various programs, a 150-seat theater with professional sound and lighting, a cafeteria with vending machines and a museum gift shop for visitors to enjoy. With a $2.5 million operating budget for 2002, the museum is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for children 1 year old and up and $7 for seniors. Call 222-0207 for more information.
Heidi Fessler, on behalf of Governor George Pataki, said "this special occasion provides children of Nassau and Suffolk counties with an opportunity to familiarize themselves with this newest asset to local life."
Once children officially helped politicians cut the ribbon, they entered a wonderland of exhibits, rides, games and gadgets, including a gigantic bubble machine and news and weather station, to finally experience first-hand what museum officials had waited for all along. And that's what it's all about.
Victoria A. Caruso contributed to this story.