MAHOMET — If you've driven past the Museum of the Grand Prairie on Illinois 47 recently, you might have noticed construction crews at work.
The facility, formerly known as the Early American Museum, is undergoing a $1 million, 4,500-square-foot expansion that will provide classroom space, collection storage, new restrooms and plenty of opportunities for staff and educators. It'll also allow the 44-year-old museum to meet the needs of today's visitors.
"This is really bringing us up to this century," director Cheryl Kennedy said as she looked around the construction site recently.
But right now, contractors and museum staff alike are crossing their fingers that the weather holds.
December's unusual, unseasonable weather—and the short windows of time between bouts of rain and snow — has kept crews from pouring concrete for the addition's floor.
Right now, sewer and electrical work is being completed in anticipation of finally pouring the floor at the end of next week—if the weather holds.
Kennedy estimated that the addition probably won't be finished until early June, rather than the April or May opening that was originally scheduled.
The museum is closed in January and February each year before opening for the season on March 1. Annually, the museum hosts 4,000 schoolchildren for its popular educational programs.
"We desperately needed some extra space," Kennedy said, pointing out that museum visitors couldn't browse the exhibits if there was an educational program going on because schoolchildren were seated on the floors.
When the museum opened its doors in 1968, she said, museums were regarded as a place for visitors to view artifacts in a more passive way. But during the intervening decades, the concept of museums has expanded to include hands-on, interactive educational programs — something that the current facility wasn't equipped to handle.
"Over the years, we've grown significantly in the ways we serve our audiences," Kennedy said.
Plus, restroom facilities were severely limited, meaning that school or senior citizen tour groups spent a great deal of time waiting in line to use them.
The expansion will also connect the main building with the office annex and greatly increase the amount of space for storage of the museum's collections. In addition, a fire-suppression system will be installed in the main building and annex.
Exterior doors will lead to a new garden area, the setting for the museum's Second Sunday concerts during the warmer months.
"We've almost created a band shell here," Kennedy said, pointing out how the addition's wall will shield performers and audiences from the traffic on Illinois 47. The focal points of the outdoor area will be a large oak and a magnolia tree, beckoning visitors down a path toward the greenhouse area and discovery garden.
The Museum of the Grand Prairie got a $500,000 grant from the state for the project, with the remainder provided by fundraising and capital funds.
The museum announced its name change in early 2010. But it's more than just a shift in terminology; Kennedy said that it reflects a broader focus on both the natural and cultural history of life on the Illinois prairies.
The museum's long-term plan includes another future addition, this one to the north. But that's a long way off, Kennedy said, and the current expansion "satisfies an immediate need."
Johnston Contractors of Bloomington is heading up the project. Plans had originally called for construction to begin in September, but crews quickly hit some long-forgotten water pipes. The resulting repairs set the process back a month.
Kennedy said that the contractors have been very accommodating to the needs of the museum and its educational programs — some of which still go on during the offseason.
She hopes that everything will be finished in time for students to use the classroom facilities in fall 2012. In the meantime, she's excited about the opportunities inherent in the new space.
"We're still working to find out all the different possibilities that the building can provide," she said.
A version of this story appeared in print Jan. 15.