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Discovery Station: At last the dream finds a real home

June 11, 1999

The next time you're in downtown Hagerstown, head down Potomac Street until you get to the municipal parking lot next to the Elizabeth Hager Center, the building with the colorful, building-high mural.

Turn left into the lot, then look across the rows of spaces to the east and you'll see an old three-story brick building that you've probably never given a second look. It's just an old warehouse now, but if a group of local boosters has its way, it will be the future home of Discovery Station.

What's that?

It's an interactive museum for children, who'll be encouraged to learn about science through exhibits that they can set in motion with the push of a button or the pull of a lever. It's been the dream of Beverly Baccala to build one here since 1994, when she read that it was part of Hagerstown's master plan to have a children's museum downtown.

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Baccala, now a job development specialist in Frederick, had worked previously for the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore and was able to get officials there to pledge their help in developing a similar facility in Hagerstown.

It's been a long road, Baccala said, in part because people (and foundations) were reluctant to contribute before there was a site identified. Now that the city has agreed to a low-cost lease of the property, fund-raising will begin in earnest.

"Now the real work begins," she said, adding that "we're not just asking for money. We also need contractors and tradespeople to donate their services. And we're still open to ideas, if people have favorite topics they want us to cover in the exhibits."

Baccala doesn't say it, but the ideas will be easier to come by than the money. Discovery Station has $8,000 in the bank and $3,000 in other assets to apply to a project that architect Kurt Cushwa estimates will cost a little less than $1 million.

And how will money be raised?

Interviewed on Tuesday, Baccala said the Discovery Station board would meet Thursday to discuss fund-raising possibilities.

And what would all that cash buy?

Cushwa, a member of the board, said that for starters, it will add two stair-tower wings to the corners of the old three-story warehouse. These projections would house bathrooms, fire escapes and an elevator. Between them would be built a 1,500-square-foot entryway, with a projection that would shelter buses for loading and unloading in all sorts of weather.

"Above that would be an outdoor display area of 1,500 square feet," Cushwa said, which would leave the building with about 15,000 square feet of finished space, including an observatory with a telescope in one of the the stair towers.

Studies of such centers have show that they need at least that much exhibit space, Cushwa said.

"If you can see everything in five minutes, that's no good," Cushwa said, adding that "you want to have so much that they're going to come back and see what they missed the first time."

Cushwa talks about the project like a kid with a new Erector set, enthusing about all the things the building will include.

"We're incorporating all sorts of things into the center," Cushwa said, including displays that will highlight the differences between construction methods used in the old warehouse and the building's new sections.

"It'll be a like a building museum, and we'll have a part of the wall peeled away, to show people what's inside," he said.

Outside in the parking lot, there are plans for a brick inlay that will allow the building itself to function as a sundial, with shadows falling on certain spots at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the two days each year when day and night are of equal duration.

Another idea considered, and then discarded, would have shaped the front the Discovery Station building so that a whisper from someone standing in front of it would have been audible all the way over at the city parking deck. Then, Cushwa said, someone figured out that the sound of a car horn projected in that way might deafen someone in the deck.

Still, Cushwa said, "It's going to be very bright, very playful."

The target audience will be students within a 100-mile radius who'll come here on field trips, but Baccala says the hope is that they'll bring their parents back for visits at other times. To defer some of the operating costs, the facility will also be available for rent for corporate or civic events.

Admission (probably about $3 a person) will cover some other costs, Baccala said, and there'll be corporate memberships available as well.

Some exhibits will be permanent, Cushwa said, while some will be there only temporarily, as they're moved from one facility to another around the nation.

"Our target date for opening is Spring 2001," Baccala said.

She knows that's an ambitious timetable, but with a site identified now she says she's confident it will happen.

"Now the real work begins," she said.




Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of the Herald-Mail newspapers.

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