The passionate forces behind the Thinkery dreamed big. As a result, Austin’s stunning and wildly successful new children’s museum has created a neighborhood of its own.
Lynn Meredith hails from a family of educators. So it’s no surprise that when she moved to Austin in 1993, with her husband and four children (the youngest at the time were ages two and six), she quickly became immersed in the Austin Children’s Museum, which was originally founded in 1983 and was housed in temporary locations like malls and libraries. She joined the board of directors and helped raise $6.5 million to open the museum’s former incarnation at 2nd and Colorado in 1997. Today that corner is ground zero for the well-heeled design district, but at the time it wasn’t much of a neighborhood. “It was an area of homeless people and businesses that went dark in the evening,” Meredith remembers.
All that was about to change. As Austin’s rapid growth spurt took hold, the museum space felt increasingly compromised. “The problem was that we were always retrofitting, not creating,” Meredith says. “I used to tell friends it was like trying to fit a size nine foot into a size six shoe.” Which soon posed the question “Where else could the museum be located?”
“The quandary was whether to remain downtown and be limited by space and building constraints or to find a new location where we could do whatever we wanted,” Meredith says. Anyone who’s tried to drive downtown during a festival or parade knows that sometimes “central” is actually not so family-friendly. The idea of being in an area where families would be comfortable, with free parking, plenty of options for buying food, and room for outdoor play space and picnic areas became increasingly attractive.
At the time, in 2008, the Mueller development was well underway and it offered everything downtown did not. And the location, just off the I-35 corridor, spoke to the broader needs of a growing city. “Austin has become a regional community,” Meredith says. “We wanted to create a museum that followed a model like Dell Children’s Hospital and be an institution that reaches into many communities. At Mueller, we had the opportunity to make Austin’s premier family place so accessible.”
One of the positives in moving into the I-35 corridor is that families from the surrounding areas like Georgetown or Round Rock can easily pop onto the highway and zip down to spend a few hours at the Thinkery. “As our center is continually built out, we’ve become a Central Texas Region,” Meredith says.
The $18 million result of all the imagining and planning, which opened in December 2013, is twice the size of the former location. In the soaring 40,000-square-foot facility, parents have an unobscured view for long distances, so keeping an eye on kids is easier and it feels safe. “We wanted a flexible space that could accommodate many different kinds of exhibits, and yet kids would feel that they owned it,” Meredith says. “Kids feel free and in control.”
Meredith credits architect Jim Susman, a principal at STG Design in Austin and past president of the Children’s Museum board, as an instrumental guide throughout the process. “He was able to translate through design what it means not only to be a children’s museum, but to be a children’s museum in Austin, Texas.”
The project attracted an impressive staff from around the country to fulfill the museum’s mission: “To create innovative learning experiences that equip and inspire the next generation of creative problem solvers.” The planners drew inspiration from places like the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The model of learning is built on “STEAM” education (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) as well as healthy living. Features include cool hands-on exhibits, an outdoor gallery that incorporates a playscape and water play, expanded content for children 0–11 (especially the older ages), and dynamic new programming.
“Being a kid at heart, a gadget geek, and a dad, I love places of wonder and exploration,” says Rodney Gibbs, chief innovation officer for the Texas Tribune. “The Thinkery is the kind of place I’ve long admired in other cities. I would drag myself home asking, ‘Why doesn’t Austin have something this cool? Now it does.’”
In some ways the Thinkery has validated the highest aspirations for what Mueller could become. Erica Keast Heroy, an architect who lives in the neighborhood with her husband and two young children, recently attended a Sunday morning birthday party at the museum. “It was one of those amazing spring mornings, and the bike ride there was short and perfect with small kids in tow. Afterwards, when we left, I felt like we were walking into a festival. People from everywhere were going into the Thinkery, a lot was going on at the Mueller Lake Park playground, and then of course the farmers’ market was buzzing. It was the first time I really saw in action what is planned for this neighborhood and I felt really excited to be a part of it.”
“The joy, the noise, the concentration. It has exceeded all of my expectations,” Meredith says. “I cannot believe what a success it’s been.” On any given day, there are toddlers in smocks happily painting on an expansive glass screen or playing grocery store with plastic produce, and large groups of schoolchildren. Community night (Wednesdays, 5-8 pm) is frequently packed, and over spring break there was a need for tickets to be sold in timed intervals to control crowds. And the demand continues to grow.
In the midst of the happy chaos, the most poignant snapshots are scenes of parents and kids experiencing the exhibits together.
“The road ahead is gleaming,” Meredith says proudly, “the opportunities to impact teachers, kids, parents. I see the Thinkery taking a spot on the landscape of the country as being an incredible place for learning and teaching. The staff and the professionals that we have attracted are inspiring, and with the buzz that is in Austin now, the possibilities are endless.”
by Joanna Steblay
As the warm weather begins to set in and patio parties hit our calendars, we can’t help but embrace that summertime has returned to Austin. If you’re anything like us, you’ll be celebrating the return of the season with decadent ice cream, healthy smoothies and icy cocktails from your favorite local spots.
For those days when it’s too hot to venture out, we went to Austin’s sweet treat professionals and compiled the ultimate collection of DIY recipes to make from your home. Click through the galleries below to learn how to make everything icy and sweet, from poptails for date night to ice cream sandwiches for a dinner party.more
The spring edition of the Renegade Craft Fair returns for its seventh year in Austin May 14-15 at Fair Market. With over 125 makers on the roster, the scene is sure to be bustling with local artisans and DIYers slinging their unique, one-of-a-kind wares. In addition to great shopping, the RCF offers activities, special showcases and plenty of food and drink options for visitors. This year, celebrate your hard work shopping with a snack from Burro Cheese Kitchen and Lucky Lab Coffee Co. before commemorating the afternoon with some snapshots from Magnolia Photo Booth Co. But before...more
by James Ruiz
Inspired by the beautiful outdoor living spaces featured in our May feature The Space Between, we went window shopping and found some great outdoor furniture and accessories to liven up your outdoor patio, porch and pool. Flip through the galleries below to see how you can add a pop of color and style to your outdoor hideaway.more
Hundreds of people are moving to Austin each day, and downtown is one of the major hubs of growth for the city. Local real estate expert Jude Galligan discusses smart urban growth and what to expect this year as the skyline continues to evolve.
Your blog keeps Austin updated on the latest news in downtown. What is the most exciting development happening right now?
From my point of view, the most exciting development is the Waller Creek District Master Plan. Decades in the making, this transformative project came to life after designers competed for the contract. It is finally coming to downtown, bringing an imaginative chain of parks,...more
by James Ruiz
As you flip through the pages of our February Love Issue, one thing you’ll notice is the beautiful blooms that pop up throughout the magazine. We got some major googly eyes for the bouquets featured in our "Real Weddings" features, and earmarked the TRIBEZA Wedding Guide for even more Pinterest-worthy petals.
Instead of letting all that inspiration go to waste, we tried our hand at flower arranging to see what we could create. Since we consider ourselves floral design novices, we asked a few top designers...more