Rotary Rescues a Cherished Children’s Museum 

On September 21, 2018, International Day of Peace celebrations were held around the world as communities large and small gathered with shared aspirations of a more peaceful future for everyone, especially children. In Portland, Oregon, one Peace Day 2018 celebration at the Portland Children’s Museum provided inspiring images of how communities can make peace a reality for children, including those who face difficult circumstances. As the Rotary Club of Portland huddled for a photo around a Peace Pole planted at this treasured children’s facility, their smiles revealed a story of how peace is realized daily at the Portland Children’s Museum -where over 300,000 visitors per year pass through its doors.

It is a story told often within the fellowship of Rotary International about how Rotarians support local organizations and provide needed services and programs to the communities they serve. The most compelling Rotary stories are told by faces of children because peace through a child’s eye is found in every new moment of discovery.

Members of the Rotary Club of Portland gather around the Peace Pole planted at the Portland Children’s Museum for a Peace Day 2018 Celebration. This gathering in honor of Peace Day also told a story of how Rotarians raised $10 million to save a community organization serving generations of children.

Children celebrate Peace Day 2018 at the Portland Children’s Museum

The History Behind Modern Moments of Childhood Discovery 

“Growing up in 1950’s Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I wished for a horse,” says Ruth Shelly, Executive Director of the Portland Children’s Museum. “But that wasn’t very practical so my parents made me settle for a hamster.” Shelly, who is a Rotarian, has led the Portland Children’s Museum since 2013. She spoke about the museum’s unique history and cherished bonds with Rotary International at a Rotary Club of Portland meeting on September 26, 2018.

“However, if you were growing up in 1950’s Portland, you could go to a pet lending library and borrow a ring-tailed monkey, a kinkajou, a parakeet, or even a groundhog for up to two weeks. Who offered this unusual service? The Portland Children’s Museum,” she says.

According to Shelly, this unique “pet lending library” was the innovation of Dorothea Lensch, who was the first Director of Recreation for the Portland Parks Bureau and served from 1936-1970. Lensch was a special visionary who innovated youth activities in Portland and developed recreation programs in theater, music, and the arts while always pushing for more ballfields, gymnasiums, and sports activities that included greater participation by girls. Lensch also encouraged racial integration in a bygone era of social segregation of children.

“She paid special attention to children with cognitive and physical disabilities,” Shelly says, “And she insisted that city programs be affordable- if not FREE.”  The original concept of Portland Children’s Museum was a result of Lensch lobbying city leaders to add non-traditional facilities to Portland Parks’ programs. Her efforts resulted in an unusual circumstance that coupled old Oregon pioneer affluence with newer Oregonian ideas.

Ruth Shelly, a Rotarian and Executive Director of the Portland Children’s Museum.

In 1946, a city mansion built in 1861 became the original home of the Portland Children’s Museum. According to Shelly, Portland Public Schools acquired the 1861 Jacob Kamm Mansion property as the future site of Lincoln High School and Lensch had no intention of allowing such a great old building to sit unused.

“She simply asked (city leaders) to ‘borrow it’ to provide a special place for children,” says Shelly.

Dorothea Lensch was the visionary Director of the Portland Parks Department 1936-1970. Her innovative youth programs led to the creation of the Portland Children’s Museum.

Lensch lobbied Portland city leaders to utilize the historic 1861 Jacob Kamm Mansion as a facility that would serve children throughout the region.

Children in Portland enjoyed the many animals housed at the Kamm Mansion. A later “lending library” program allowed children to take home and care for animals for up to two weeks.

The Kamm Mansion “loan” to the children of Portland lasted only four years from 1946 – 1950. The mansion was physically moved at the term of this loan to bulldoze the property for a brand new public high school to be built in Portland as children in the area watched and cried, (perhaps wondering what would happen to Sugar, the groundhog.) There was also Polly, the parrot, who lived in the mansion along with hamsters, raccoons, birds, and pet mice. Two baby alligators resided on the second floor of the mansion in a marble bath. The mansion’s barn housed friendly rabbits and a Shetland pony.

Access to a variety of animals was only one dimension of their experience at this historic site because children also enjoyed free courses in ceramics and other activities at the Kamm Mansion. There were puppets, drawing and painting exercises, woodworking and weaving classes, along with displays of Native American objects and Polynesian crafts and costumes. In just four short years, the old pioneer mansion became not only a location where children could engage with animals but a place for fun activities, and a real children’s museum where they could learn about new cultures and experience new adventures. The fledgling children’s museum faced its very first existential crisis of relocation.

Shelly says it was also around this time that the Portland Children’s Museum could have merged with another innovative learning experience being developed in mid-twentieth century Portland called the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). She says Lensch worked closely with the founder of OMSI, John C. Stevens, and serious discussions were held by city leaders to blend these two great visions of learning into a single regional museum. Lensch decided she wanted a special place for children and the two entities would become “twins separated at birth,” according to subsequent reports in The Oregonian newspaper.

So while the upstart OMSI museum claimed a newer building in Portland’s iconic Washington Park, near the Portland Zoo and other major city attractions west of downtown, Lensch moved the Portland Children’s Museum (then called the Junior Museum) into a 1918 built building in the corner of South Portland’s Lair Hill Park, several miles away from both OMSI and the Zoo.

The Oregonian newspaper reports of the era observed anthropological artifacts and most of the animals that would become part of the museum’s endearing “pet lending library” were successfully relocated from the Kamm Mansion to Lair Hill Park. But sorry kids. Shelly notes that none of Portland’s great newspaper reporters of the 1950’s ever mentioned the fate of Bunnie, the Shetland pony, nor confirmed if two of Portland’s most popular baby alligators (who were conspicuously absent in the move) ever again enjoyed such luxurious marble baths they had experienced at the Jacob Kamm Mansion. Nevertheless, the Junior Museum in Lair Hill Park provided children (and their parents) unique learning experiences and remained a major Portland family attraction for four-decades.

Early Junior Museum activities. City of Portland (OR) Archives, A2001-045.483.

Changing Times and an Old Building

“One of the Junior Museum’s signature programs was a holiday exhibit on the ten best and worst toys,” says Shelly. “I have a scrapbook with the 1983 best toy being the Fisher Price tea set and the worst toy being the Mattel baby skates. Really? Skates for babies?”

Another toy found in the Junior Museum’s Lair Hill Park location basement was a 1990 game called Career for Girls- Fame, Fortune, and Happiness Game. “Young women could compete to become Super Moms, School Teachers, Rock Stars, Animal Doctors, or Fashion Designers. The sad thing is, I don’t know if it was considered one of that year’s best toys- or the worst one!”

Perhaps a poor spin-off of an earlier Parker Brothers game Careers released in 1955, it certainly represented the limited choices facing the half-century-old children’s museum by the mid-1990’s. The Lair Hill Park location grew smaller each decade and the 1918 built structure was over-crowded and needed repairs. Portland Parks was hesitant to spend an estimated $1 million to bring the structure up to accessibility and seismic standards, so the children’s museum faced its second existential crisis of relocation.

Ironically, OMSI vacated Washington Park in 1992 for its current location closer to busy Interstate 5 and city officials mulled purchasing the vacant OMSI building to house the children’s museum. “More than fifty-years after Dorothea Lensch and John Stevens first discussed whether to create one museum or two, the fates of the children’s museum and OMSI were linked again,” she says. But Portland leaders would not move the children’s museum into the vacant OMSI site in Washington Park without a substantial public/private partnership.

Enter Rotarians in Action 

Rotarians in District 5100 mobilized and informed Portland city officials they would commit to renovating the former OMSI building to relocate the children’s museum. The Portland City Council voted to purchase the OMSI building based on prior dealings with Rotary, and Rotarians ultimately raised $10 million to relocate the Portland Children’s Museum into its present Washington Park location in 2001.

This public/private partnership also allowed the Portland Children’s Museum to become a private non-profit organization in 2001, rather than remaining a Portland Parks’ program. The City of Portland owns the world-class Washington Park location but thanks to Rotary, the city provided a 30-year lease to the children’s museum for only $10.00. (Plus a promise by city leaders to pay utilities.)

Rotarians not only rescued a legacy program for the children of Portland, founded by Lensch a half-century earlier, but provided a new venue for learning that would grow into an internationally recognized center of childhood education.

The modern Portland Children’s Museum, made possible by Rotarians in District 5100, is a place where children learn and create positive childhood memories.

Discovering “water tables” at the Portland Children’s Museum.

The $10 million raised by Rotarians to relocate the Portland Children’s Museum into its current site also allowed a collaboration with Oregon educators to form the K-5 Opal School, that was, of course, a “pioneer” state public charter school when it was founded in 2001. Microsoft Co-Founder Phil Allen provided an additional grant in 2007 that transformed the Portland Children’s Museum into a research magnet for elementary educators around the world.

“The modern Museum Center for Learning now documents and disseminates best practices in education through professional development workshops, symposiums, and online resources for teachers,” says Shelly. “The Portland Children’s Museum is the seventh oldest existing children’s museum in America, but the only one to have a museum, a preschool, a K-5 public charter school, and a research center.”

Shelly points to an early student of the Opal School, Xavier Pierce, as an example of how Rotarians helped blossom Dorothea Lensch’s original vision (of providing a special place for children) into a world-renowned center of childhood learning and education that will inspire future generations of children. “Xavier is now is now a Teaching Assistant at Opal School in 2018,” she says.

With the support of Rotary, the Portland Children’s Museum welcomed nearly 50,000 children and families last year who attended through free or subsidized programs. The museum also offers a free low-sensory evening once per month allowing children with disabilities to have their own exclusive access to the museum.

“Although we no longer have live animals, in 2014 we opened a 1.3-acre nature play park, Outdoor Adventure, where children can explore, dig in the dirt, play in a stream, and climb the best trees in Portland. The Rotary Club of Portland also founded a water table so that children with physical challenges could reach the water too.”

This historic, always surviving, and now thriving internationally prestigious museum and center for children will need to relocate again when its current 30-year lease with the city of Portland, made possible by the $10 million raised by Rotary, expires in 2031. Yet, Shelly is not concerned about the Portland Children’s Museum facing a third existential crisis of relocation mid-21st century.

“With every move of the Portland Children’s Museum, the organization has grown and has a greater impact.”

A 2001 article in The Oregonian pictures Xavier Pierce, a child at the then newly formed Opal School, a public charter school made possible by Rotarians. Pierce is now a Teaching Assistant at the Opal School in 2018.

Modern Childhood Memories Created at the Portland Children’s Museum

Children at the Portland Children’s Museum painted peace stones and planted them around a Peace Pole while singing peace-themed songs on International Day of Peace 2018. They also learned to make peace signs with their small fingers. The modern images of that day only serve to remind our world the true meaning of peace as conceptualized by community visionaries such as Dorothea Lensch and advanced by Rotarians, because peace is not just a one-day celebration when viewed through childlike eyes- it is found in every moment of discovery. Yes, this is a Rotary success story best told by children.

Learn more about the Portland Children’s Museum including their programs and daily activities for children by visiting their website.