History Museum seeks to rev up fundraising effort | News | Palo Alto Online |


History Museum seeks to rev up fundraising effort

Nonprofit hopes to open history museum in 2019

The Palo Alto City Council on Monday will consider extending the Palo Alto History Museum's lease at the historic Roth Building, which expires Dec. 31, 2017. Photo taken March 26, 2014 by Veronica Weber.

For Rich Green, the path toward a brighter future requires getting Palo Altans jazzed about the city's past.

Green, who serves as president of the Palo Alto History Museum's board of directors, is in the midst of a $20 million campaign to build a history museum downtown. He wants to see the building open in 2019 and to serve as the focal point of the city's celebration of Palo Alto's quasquicentennial (125th anniversary).

Laura Bajuk, the History Museum's executive director. Photo by Palo Alto Online.
The goal may seem ambitious, given that City Council members and volunteers have been talking about building a history museum since 2007, when the nonprofit Palo Alto History Museum first pitched the idea. But Green is confident that the project has momentum.

The group's efforts have been accelerating in recent months. The nonprofit has raised about $5.7 million altogether for the building's rehabilitation, with $1.4 million coming from private donations and pledges and the remainder coming from the city and through a sale of "transferrable development rights" that brought in $2.9 million.

The goal is to create a world-class museum that celebrates the city's rich history and inspires how visitors think about the future (fittingly, the campaign has two slogans: "It happened here" and "Inspiring the future"). The refurbished 1932 building, formerly a home the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, will be equipped with galleries, interactive exhibits, a climate-controlled archive repository and a meeting room.

The museum would offer classes to local students and educate residents and visitors about everything from the Hewlett Packard garage where HP was founded to Birge Clark, the city's most prominent architect (and designer of the Roth Building).

But while these revenues, along with donations, helped move the project along, the rising construction costs have created a fresh obstacle. The construction project, originally pegged at about $6.2 million, now stands at about $9.2 million, according to a new report from the Administrative Services Department.

In addition to the construction work, the Palo Alto History Museum is working to add another $10.2 million to provide "a top-quality museum experience, adding state-of-the-art exhibits and collections and archive care, among other museum fittings," according to the report. Green told the Weekly that the History Museum has already raised $2 million for the future exhibits.

Though the fundraising campaign is nearly a decade old, it has evolved since 2014, when the museum board hired an executive director, Myron Freedman, to explore its strategic direction. Earlier this year, Freedman moved on to take charge of the Nevada State Museum and the board hired Laura Bajuk to take his spot.

Bajuk, a Palo Alto resident who worked in history museums in Los Altos and Los Gatos, told the Weekly in a May interview that the nonprofit's vision for the museum is to make it a gathering space filled with activity and interaction.

"It's a different way of thinking," Bajuk said in an interview on the Weekly's webcast, "Behind the Headlines." "The traditional model of a museum is a place that you come to and maybe you're told to stay quiet and not touch anything.

"That's not how museums want to function in their communities today."

But before the museum can realize that vision, it still has to clear a series of hurdles. On Monday night, the council will consider whether to extend the History Museum's lease option on the Roth Building for another year (the current lease option will expire on Dec. 31). It will then need the Architectural Review Board's approval for its landscaping plan and other minor design issues, according to a staff report.

Then there's the biggest obstacle of all: raising the needed cash. On that score, Green is optimistic. The organization, he said, is starting its corporate campaign and is just now reaching out to some of the major companies that were founded in Palo Alto. It is cultivating relationships within the community and is planning to launch fundraising events -- private parties hosted by notable residents -- in the coming months.

And museum officials were thrilled to see the residents turn up in great numbers in March to its screening of "Lesson Plan," a 2010 documentary about an experiment that a Cubberley High School teacher named Ron Jones conducted in 1967 at the now-defunct school. Known as "Third Wave," the project simulated the rise of fascism during World War II by creating an elite social movement for students.

The event, Bajuk told the Weekly, brought more audience members than the group had expected and filled the Cubberley theater to capacity,

History Museum officials hope this kind of excitement can translate to fundraising success in the months ahead. But if it doesn't, they have a contingency plan in place. Green told the Weekly that while $20 million would pay for the "museum of our dreams," the board is also considering a scaled-back approach.

"We can probably open doors and have functioning museum -- not all the exhibits and programs in place yet but something the community can start to enjoy -- for less than that amount," Green said.


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23 people like this
Posted by mattie
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 6, 2017 at 5:32 pm

it's taken them over a decade to get get nowhere because there are patently better uses for this space. no one wants to say it aloud to the committed exponents of the project (who is against history?), but the city needs to be honest about how and why they have gotten nowhere, change course, and reset with new ideas.

i personally would be for multiple uses partitioned up and NO LONG TERM COMMITMENTS to third parties so we can be light on our feet as community demand shifts. image a mixed bag of uses of things like maker spaces, language or adult ed classes, community music groups, art, elder groups, and yes historical installations.

i imagine a "back entrance" onto that disused section Heritage Park after the renovation that could let the spaces play off each other.

that would take some tactful honesty and a modicum of political risk-taking... but c'mon city council, I believe in you! have some brainstorming breakfasts with the folks that did the JMZ... you'll be rife with good ideas and real fundraising before you know it!

5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 6, 2017 at 6:40 pm

"it's taken them over a decade to get get nowhere because there are patently better uses for this space."

The city giddily bought the building from PAMF with only the foggiest notion of what to do with it. After it sobered up, city hall realized it would have to spend multi-million$ to make its new but old acquisition legal to use again. So it solicited for a tenant to rent the building at $1.00 per year--and do the repairs on its own dime. It awarded the prize to the only applicant. Guess who that was.

5 people like this
Posted by mattie
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 6, 2017 at 7:07 pm

@curmudgeon -- I share your frustration on that front. I'm hopeful we can find a way not to compound things further... All paths should be on the table, including selling, rehab it to rent (think the "Form Fitness building"), or find cost effective public service. Let's be generous and call the plan on the table "sub-optimal."

Clearly we did something wrong with that initial RFP if we only got one responder. Maybe things are different a decade down the line?

6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 6, 2017 at 8:32 pm

"Clearly we did something wrong with that initial RFP if we only got one responder. Maybe things are different a decade down the line?"

Only if that building has magically become much larger and grown a parking lot in the meantime. It was built in the early thirties to be a small-town clinic; all of its subsequent augmentations are gone. Too late the city realized it was too small for practical municipal use. Read the city council minutes of the ca. 2000 era, the honorable Mayor Liz Kniss presiding, and watch city hall's transition from giddy buyer's euphoria to sober owner's reality.

The museum group is city hall's best and only hope to salvage something out if its impulse purchase debacle.

4 people like this
Posted by m2grs
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2017 at 8:58 pm

@Curmudgeon, why the purchase is a debacle? The value must have appreciated exponentially since the purchase. In the worst case city can auction it to the highest bidder. I bet the return on investment is more than 300%, possibly one of the best uses of city funds in the last ten years.

19 people like this
Posted by Neal
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 7, 2017 at 6:54 am

Do we really need a museum? I doubt the vast majority of residents give a hoot. Palo Alto's land is too valuable to be wasted on a museum. I'm sure the City can put it to better use. I'd start by demolishing the "historic" building.

35 people like this
Posted by Go history museum
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 7, 2017 at 8:43 am

Go history museum is a registered user.

The city did the right thing by buying an important building in a park and renting it for a dollar per year for a group to put it to a great community use.

The same model was very successful in saving the Seascout building by the city and the Enviormental Volunterrs for another great community use!

history and conservation education may not be every residents personal interest, but the Council is here to serve the entire community; and does so with a wide variety of services: elderly services, environmental education, community centers with room for artists studios, health facilities, libraries, lunch services, athletic fields, golf, airport ,parks and open spaces....etc...
A history museum would be a great addition!

15 people like this
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 7, 2017 at 11:17 am

Thank you to Go History Museum! Palo Alto does NOT need to demolish the "historic" building to construct more high rise condos/apartments/retail space. Bah Humbug!!

19 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 7, 2017 at 11:35 am

Last weekend I went to the RWC Tree Lighting event - which, I have to say, was far better than Palo Alto's attempt. While wandering I discovered the RWC History Museum - which I always thought was their city hall. Now that's a museum! They have spent energy, time and money into promoting our local past. We don't learn unless we look at the past and reflect where we went wrong or right. Museums are important for all of us.

Don't dismiss the museum, cherish it. And if you want to see how nice a local museum can be go check out RWC. I was amazed at what they had.

Like this comment
Posted by Dawn
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 7, 2017 at 12:01 pm

There is a mistake in the article. Ron Jones is the teacher who did the Third Wave experiment mentioned in "Lesson Plan." Not Ron Johnson.

2 people like this
Posted by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Dec 7, 2017 at 12:52 pm

Gennady Sheyner is a registered user.

Thanks, Dawn. Sorry for the error. I corrected it.

6 people like this
Posted by PA Grandma
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 7, 2017 at 1:10 pm

OK, here is an alternative - work with the Cubberley Artist Studio Program to take over the Roth building and give the artists a permanent space. Although the city moves at glacial speed, it's not certain that any "take back" of Cubberley by the school district would allow space for the artists. Other than adding a second story to and expanding the present Art Center on Newell, not sure where the artists would go. And losing that small outpost of creativity would be a true loss to the city. I'd be willing to bet that a proposal to create a "Torpedo Factory West" (look it up - it's in Alexandria, VA) would generate enough funds to do the renovation job.

19 people like this
Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2017 at 1:45 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

Not surprised at some of the backlash in the comments. Nothing pleases some of the commenters here. I'd be delighted to see a Palo Alto History Museum in that beautiful building. I hope it can come to fruition.

12 people like this
Posted by Museum Advocate
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 7, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Let us take a wider view of the importance of a history museum in Palo Alto! Our city and Stanford are Globally recognized places, and we have an amazing history of innovation. Not only does the Palo Alto History Museum intend to educate and inspire our local community; it will provide our city's innovative history to national and international visitors.
Redwood City, Sunnyvale, Los Gatos, and other cities on the Peninsula have history museums. Stanford and Palo Alto do not showcase their history. Why would we NOT accept our responsibility to correct this and to provide a very meaningful experience in a beautiful Birge Clark building? Also, in doing so, the Museum will be an addition to the our Community facilities that make Palo Alto a special city.

7 people like this
Posted by resident239
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 7, 2017 at 2:35 pm

resident239 is a registered user.

How about they just work with the history museum across the street. Maybe add on there. Fix up the Roth building and rent it out to a tech or vc company and help plug the MASSIVE HOLE in our budget. Otherwise, you know they'll be asking for more money from the city for construction and for operations in perpetuity.

6 people like this
Posted by Pat
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 7, 2017 at 3:52 pm

It is worth considering that Palo Alto already has three museums: American Heritage, Stanford Heritage, and Palo Alto History Museum. When we moved to Palo Alto, we had high hopes for the Roth Building. It is very sad to see the deterioration and to realize how fragmented efforts are to bring the idea of another museum to fruition.

4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 7, 2017 at 6:26 pm

"@Curmudgeon, why the purchase is a debacle? The value must have appreciated exponentially since the purchase."

The city government should not be in the real estate speculation bushiness, so the land appreciation, such as it may be, is irrelevant. City hall bought this rundown building on impulse with no real plan for how to utilize it, discovered it could not afford to bring it up to occupancy standards, and found only one organization willing to save its bacon there. I wish that white knight well.

OK, a debacle with a hope for mitigation. Fair enough?

15 people like this
Posted by rita vrhel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 7, 2017 at 8:24 pm

I support the history Museum and feel it would be a great addition to our community especially if housed in the historic Roth building. I shudder to think a writer actually wants to tear the building down; yikes.

Over 600 families have made donations; more are needed. The plans are drawn and the building is zoned PF-public facility. Additional time, i.e. the 1-year extension on the lease option seems very reasonable.

Please remember, as discussed at City Council on 12/4, it took the Junior Museum and Zoo much longer to raise the necessary funds to move forward.

I do not know why the 1-year lease option extension was taken off the 12/4 City Council Consent Calendar and made into an agenda item? Seems like the City Council has many more important items to discuss.

Please attend the 12/11 CC meeting and support the History Museum with your attendance and money. Thank you

2 people like this
Posted by Mr.Day
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 8, 2017 at 8:04 am

I think the old Radio building in the wetlands would be a cool sight for the museum too.

4 people like this
Posted by m2grs
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2017 at 11:31 pm

@rita vrhel, there is a big difference between the zoo museum and history museum.

The Museum & Zoo attracts far more visitors. You have school trips during weekdays. Weekends had always been very busy. Kids running around. Parents mingle. From donor's point of view it is a good use of his or her money. The money has impact.

A history museum, on the other hand, won't attract nearly as many visitors. The Heritage Museum may have tens of visitors in a typical weekend, based on my observation when I was there. And I have been there three times this year. This is not just Palo Alto. Los Altos History Museum is the same thing. It is right next to the main library. But few people wander into the free museum.

People in general are just not that interested in history, not constantly. They want something fun, exciting and forward-looking. That's why Zoo & Museum is so great for the community. I'm not saying we should not preserve history. It is extremely important. But it's just hard to raise money simply because of the lack of visitors hence lack of social impact.

8 people like this
Posted by Ares
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2017 at 7:15 am

A great museum coffee shop and gift shop can make the History museum the best thing in town.

Plus a good space for hosting Speaker Programs and some programs for Youth who are past the Zoo age.

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