orpheum exterior

The exterior of the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum is shown in October 2014 in downtown Champaign.

Listen to this article

CHAMPAIGN — Shut down since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, downtown’s Orpheum Children’s Science Museum will remain closed permanently, it was announced Thursday.

The museum’s board made the decision last week to close and put its historic building up for sale, President Janet Wattnem said.

“Our revenue has taken a drastic hit due to the pandemic,” she said. And “our bills, the maintenance of the building — those costs continue to accumulate. So the board took a very hard look at our future and decided that it was best if we close it now.”

The museum is funded primarily through admission and spring and summer camp fees, she said.

The Orpheum received donations, grants and a federal Payment Protection Program loan, but “it was just not enough,” Wattnem said.

The loan “was definitely very, very important in allowing us to keep our staff on payroll for a longer period of time,” she said.

She also said the museum had outgrown the former theater’s building.

“The space was really hindering our ability to bring in new, larger, more interactive exhibits,” Wattnem said.

The museum grew out of an effort started in 1989 to save the Orpheum Theater, which opened in 1914 but had sat empty since 1986.

The museum opened in 1994, receiving remodeling in 2000 and 2009.

“With other children’s museums offering much larger, interactive, almost playground-like spaces, this building doesn’t allow us to do that,” Wattnem said. “We’re much more confined to smaller, more modular types of exhibits.”

The board plans to sell the building.

“This facility could serve many different purposes,” she said. “It has a lot of potential.”

Perry Morris, an emeritus board member who has been involved with the Orpheum since the campaign to save it began, said that while the closure “is especially disappointing,” he is “very optimistic that the theater can once again have a new life."

“Likewise, we know the community values a children’s museum, and I believe if more people get involved it can return, even better than ever," he said.

Wattnem said while the museum has no plans to relocate, “I think the community deserves a science museum, a tech museum, an innovation museum of some sort.”

Xander Hazel, who was previously the acting executive director and events and engagement coordinator at the Orpheum and is now executive director of the Champaign Center Partnership, said that while the closure didn’t surprise him, he believes it could be an opportunity.

“It was an ambitious idea in the ’90s. It worked for a long time because there was a need for a children’s museum in the community, and that hasn’t changed,” he said.

The Orpheum was “a pretty big driver of bringing families to downtown,” he said. “We try to do that with events like the Parade of Lights, but there’s going to be a deficit now.”

Hazel sees an opportunity for new ideas to play out downtown.

“There will probably be other vacant storefronts, too,” he said. “I’d like to think that new entrepreneurs will see these spaces and really work with them.”