Wheaton's Center for History closes Front Street location

The future of Wheaton's Center for History appears bleak this week after it was forced to close its downtown Front Street location.

Center for History President Alberta Adamson was angry and tearful Tuesday as she packed boxes in the second-floor museum.

Around her stood empty glass cases where exhibits about everything from the Civil War and the Underground Railroad to World War II and local history once were displayed.

Piles of books and documents dating to the 1800s were scattered across the floor and shelves, waiting to be packed and moved.

"We want to continue, we want to find a new location, we want to move forward, but we can't do it without community support," Adamson said.

The nonprofit group, she said, is in debt and being evicted from the 6,000-square-foot space at 315 W. Front St. that it has rented since 2006.

"We've succeeded a long time without (support from) the city, but we're not anymore," she said.

Beginning around 1993, the Center received money annually from the city that accounted for roughly 40 percent of the museum's yearly revenue. The city money, Adamson said, was viewed as a "fee for service" for the organization to "preserve and promote Wheaton's history."

At that time, and back when the organization was established in 1980, there was great community support for a museum that focused exclusively on Wheaton, she said.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, there was also a significant increase in the number of people coming to the center, which for years operated out of its smaller museum that opened in 1986 in a home at 606 N. Main St.

But things changed when the city funding, which ranged from about $200,000 a year to $250,000 a year, was cut off as part of the city's $3 million in budget reductions in 2009.

When the city began to realize it would need to slash its expenditures, City Manager Don Rose said, it alerted the Center for History of the situation.

"We had encouraged the group to look at what other funding sources they might be able to procure," Rose said. "Over the years I know they never really developed any other sources of funding."

The organization has made requests to get city funding back after the original cuts in 2009, but they were rejected by the city council.

Mayor Michael Gresk said he supported allocating $85,000 to help the center cover its rent in 2011, but some council members weren't happy with the organization's financial reports.

"There was just a general concern on the way money was being spent and how it was put to the best use," he said.

Since the city cut funding, the museum stopped sending mailings advertising its programs to teachers and in recent years it hasn't done any marketing, Adamson said.

Money now comes only from donations, programming fees and admission costs.

The aging board of directors and volunteers still care, she said, but aren't able to do as much work as they did in the past.

In addition, donations have declined dramatically, fewer school groups are coming in, staff has been eliminated and public hours are almost nonexistent.

"We don't even send out membership renewals," Adamson said, adding that the group doesn't have money to pay for postage or the staff to do it. "We're doing the best we can, but it's not good enough."

Educational programs will continue at the organization's Main Street location and off-site programming for adults and children still can be arranged. But Adamson said the Center is in such dire straits it is planning to sell the Main Street building in the near future.

A public meeting will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Front Street location to gauge residents' interest in saving the museum and to help the board of directors decide what to do next.

"Does the community want us in town? Maybe they don't. We don't know. So we, before we invest in anything else, we need to know if Wheaton wants us," Adamson said.

In the meantime, Adamson is struggling just to find volunteers who can help move what remains of the museum's 47,000-piece collection into off-site storage.

"It pains me to think people don't care," she said. "I want people to realize that once it's gone it's not coming back. This is so much Wheaton here and it shouldn't be lost.

"It shouldn't be discarded," she said. "It should be supported through volunteers and money. A museum cannot function without money."

  The Center for History at 315 W. Front St. in Wheaton has closed. President Alberta Adamson said the organization is in debt and in the process of moving its 47,000-piece collection out of the space that it has rented since 2006. Jessica Cilella/
  Center for History President Alberta Adamson is in the process of packing up books and other artifacts after the organization was evicted from a space it rents at 315 W. Front St. in Wheaton. Jessica Cilella/
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