West Hartford’s Town Plan and Zoning Commission unanimously approved a Special Use Permit for the Children’s Museum to temporarily move to vacant property at Emanuel Synagogue.
By Ronni Newton
The Children’s Museum will be vacating its current location at 950 Trout Brook Drive within the next month, and the plan to temporarily relocate museum operations to unused space at Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford has been given the green light by the Town Plan and Zoning Commission (TPZ), which on Monday night unanimously approved a Special Use Permit.
The Children’s Museum Preschool will also be relocating to vacant space at 160 Mohegan Drive that was previously used by Lollipop Tree Nursery School, but action by TPZ was not necessary to relocate the preschool since it’s the same use.
“We’re relieved,” Children’s Museum Executive Director Michael Werle said. “The most important message is that we have the opportunity to keep servicing the West Hartford families through this partnership with Emanuel.”
Lollipop Tree, which closed in the summer of 2020, occupied both floors of the two-story structure adjacent to the Emanuel Synagogue driveway. The Children’s Museum preschool, which will occupy the upper floor of building, will open in the new space on Aug. 31, Werle said.
The Special Use Permit granted Monday allows the museum to utilize approximately 8,146 square feet on the lower floor of the building for its offices and programming.
The museum will need to vacate the space it has occupied at 950 Trout Brook Drive by early September, and the transition to the Mohegan Drive space will take about a month, said Werle. He is hopeful that operations will resume in late September or early October.
Although the temporary space is roughly 70% smaller, Werle said the majority of the animals currently housed at the Children’s Museum will be able to be moved to the new site. “All but the largest animals that need outdoor space,” Werle said. Those that cannot be relocated will be re-homed.
In order to accommodate the temporary move, the Children’s Museum plans to refocus its target audience and core activities to children ages 3 through 8 and their caregivers.
At the temporary space, all activities will take place indoors, and there will be no field trips, school bus visits, or summer camps. The Children’s Museum has proposed hours of operation as weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will be closed during Saturday Sabbath services and on all High Holidays.
The parking area has been re-striped to better facilitate access for museum and preschool operations.
“Welcoming the Museum is consistent with Emanuel Synagogue’s values of being a good community citizen,” Rabbi David Small said in a letter to the community prior to the TPZ vote. “We are glad to be able to help cherished resource of our community in their time of need. We also are glad to help fulfill the biblical teaching, going back to the story of Noah’s ark, to nurture and care for living creatures. Most of the small animals that would be in our space have been rescued and rehabilitated. The Museum helps teach young children to understand and care for our natural environment. We look forward to welcoming the Children’s Museum to our neighborhood and hope that you will too.”
The move to Emanuel Synagogue is temporary, and the Children’s Museum continues to look for permanent space, with a focus on opportunities in East Hartford.
“We are still in negotiation with several locations, still in a holding pattern,” Werle said Tuesday. He said they are pushing hard to finalize those plans.
The property where the Children’s Museum has been located since 1958 was sold to Kingswood Oxford School in 2003.
In January 2022, Kingswood sold the land to Continental Properties, which is planning to construct a luxury residential development on the prominent location just east of West Hartford Center. Plans for that project are being finalized and an application for a Special Development District will be considered by the Town Council later this year.
Along with the museum and the preschool, the iconic whale sculpture will have to be removed from the 950 Trout Brook Drive property. Land directly across the street from the current Children’s Museum site, along Trout Brook Drive and owned by the State of Connecticut as part of the Trout Brook Greenway, has been identified as an ideal spot to relocate the whale – keeping the structure in West Hartford, enhancing the greenway, and preventing possible damage from a lengthy move.
The 62-foot-long replica of a giant sperm whale, whose name “Conny” is short for “Connecticut,” was built by hand in West Hartford by the Cetacean Society and volunteers in 1975-1976 as a visible symbol of the organization’s “Save the Whale” effort.
Several weeks ago the Cetacean Society International brought in a 3D imaging company to create a digital image of Conny.
Werle said several bids for the move have been received, but they are hopeful that more will be forthcoming and are also hopeful that the state will allow Conny to be situated on the greenway land.
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