Naper Settlement imagines Scott's Block museum as bicentennial gift
Naperville's 200th birthday is still about 16 years away, but Naper Settlement officials already are thinking about what the city should give itself to mark the occasion.
Their answer is Scott's Block, a history museum made to look like a downtown building that existed between 1854 and 1975 as a bank and a gathering hall.
Imagined as a 31,000-square-foot museum to be built on the Naper Settlement campus at 523 S. Webster St., Scott's Block would give Naperville's historical stewards space to tell stories beginning with the city's founding era in the 1830s. Stories of war heroes, women business leaders, even iconic ice cream shops could be displayed in the new space the settlement hopes to build in time for Naperville's bicentennial in 2031, said Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, president and CEO.
"We have a tremendous plethora of wonderful stories that are our own, but they have a greater impact for who we are as a society and who we are a country and how it is that we grew up," Tamayo-Calabrese said. "We don't have a place to be able to tell those stories or to bring them to life."
The settlement began its pitch to build Scott's Block for an estimated $30 million by requesting a "lead gift" of $10 million from the city. The city regularly provides much of the settlement's funding and owns the 12-acre property that houses the settlement.
City council member David Wentz called Tamayo-Calabrese's presentation about Scott's Block "impassioned" and said he thinks the project should be a priority. He and his counterparts have begun considering ways to provide the $10 million, such as asking voters for it in a referendum question, borrowing money, or budgeting for it out of annual property tax revenue.
Tamayo-Calabrese said building Scott's Block would help Naperville continue a tradition of marking milestone years with public gifts that all can use.
Willard Scott Sr., the owner of the original Scott's Block, may have been the founder of that tradition, said Bryan Ogg, curator of research for the settlement.
Scott built a collection of business buildings beginning in 1854 at the northeast corner of Jefferson Avenue and Washington Street, and when it came time to celebrate America's centennial in 1876, he completed it with a 400-seat auditorium called Scott's Hall. The hall held plays, dances, graduations, even poultry shows in the farming community that was Naperville, and Ogg said it served as a nondenominational gathering place when most other large spaces were affiliated with a church or a school.
Scott marked the nation's 100th anniversary by building a gathering place, and the city marked its first 100 years in 1931 with the creation of Centennial Beach. Next for the city's 150th anniversary came the Riverwalk, and Tamayo-Calabrese says now it's time to think about what should commemorate the 200th year.
"This city has a tradition of giving back to the city large gifts that also serve as economic engines during milestone times," she said. "In that tradition, we hope to have Scott's Block be part of that bicentennial as the gift from the city to its community."
Having additional space would let the settlement bring many of the 55,000 artifacts it has in storage out for all to see in themed exhibits that could rotate throughout the year.
The settlement needs a temperature-controlled building in which to display these artifacts, so showing them in any of the 30 buildings already on the site won't work. Most settlement buildings are artifacts, themselves, Tamayo-Calabrese said, and can't be retrofitted to be a museum-quality display space with technology for modern, hands-on learning.
"If Naper Settlement is going to be here 20 years down the road, it has to be relevant," Tamayo-Calabrese said. "We have to be able to tell the whole story of the people that first arrived, built it (the city), expanded it and live in it today."
Fundraising could be a hurdle for Scott's Block. City council members called the $10 million they've been asked to provide a significant amount, and that's only one-third of the expected total cost. Seeking input from residents could be the next step.
"It's a bold request, of course; $10 million is a tremendous amount of money," council member Steve Chirico said. "It's a want, not a need, clearly. It would have to be something that the residents really, really embrace. If that's the feedback we get, then I think we'll have to figure out a way to get it funded."
Tamayo-Calabrese said the settlement is open to hearing residents' ideas about Scott's Block and she's willing to speak to community groups about the vision for marking Naperville's 200th year with a new place to tell the town's stories.
"No matter what the project is for Naperville's bicentennial, if there is one, it must have community buy-in," city council member Grant Wehrli said. "I think it's great vision to be talking about something like that now. If we start the process now, good things are going to happen in 2031."