The future of the historic Vose School in Alcoa went from bleak to luminous in a matter of months, garnering recent interest from several developers, including someone who wants to establish a children’s museum there.
By Oct. 1, at least five entities responded to the city of Alcoa’s latest request for a proposal to revitalize the more than 100-year-old structure while maintaining some of its historical integrity.
One of them is Alcoa resident Angela de Leon.
She and a handful of others who call the project simply “Vose Children’s Museum” want to turn the building into an educational center that will “preserve the past and prepare the future while building unity in community,” according to the project’s website.
“Alcoa and Maryville do a great job at having a family-friendly reputation and their outdoor space is fantastic,” de Leon said in an interview Thursday. “But what is lacking is an indoor educational activity center where kids can play, learn and not have to worry about how loud they’re being.”
She has three children ages 9, 6 and 4 and said they inspired her desire to fill a “gap” in Blount while simultaneously preserving local history. She lives just blocks from the Vose School on Ford Street and first discovered it while walking around the neighborhood with her husband, an architect.
They researched and, two years ago, de Leon started looking into structure rehabilitation grants.
Today, she’s still pursuing grant money but said the museum project team also is moving to become a nonprofit. “The first line of funding is to reach out to local foundations that have an interest in the area,” de Leon said, adding they’ll also pursue grants, but many details are still up in the air.
The biggest detail is the proposal itself.
The children’s museum concept will have to compete with at least four other entities as city staff makes a recommendation to commissioners.
Assistant City Recorder Kim Wade said in an email Thursday that recommendation could come as soon as the Nov. 10 commission meeting.
In the meantime, de Leon is gathering her team, building an online presence, doing research, visiting other children’s museums and coming up with a vision for the inside and outside of the currently dilapidated structure.
Inside, she wants to have a combination of artifacts from life in the 1900s, displays and hands-on activities that allow especially younger kids to play and learn. Outside, she wants ample space for play as well as a community garden and “nature playscape.”
If the museum project does score approval from Alcoa — and de Leon said she’s confident it will — it would be rescued from an end prefaced by years of silence.
The building has been all but abandoned for decades. Mold, asbestos, mossy growth and graffiti have collected inside and outside over the years, leading some to question whether it’s usable at all.
Built by the Babcock Lumber Co. in 1916, it’s had a variegated history since it premiered as a school in 1918, later becoming a cerebral palsy school and then a school for the disabled in the late 1960s. It was used as a driver’s license branch from the late 1970s through 1999.
“It was built for the children of the area,” de Leon said, reflecting on the Vose school history. “I feel like it is most appropriate to turn it back over to the children of Alcoa. Fill those hallways again with the laughter of little children.”
She said she’s been talking to the Alcoa school system about her vision and primarily wants to make the Vose School a place where children learn through play. She hopes local schools will be able to use the place as a field trip destination for grades 3-4.
“Everything about the Vose Children’s Museum is about building community,” de Leon added. “If we are able to learn about the past and where we came from, we’ll take pride in our communities and we’ll take care of them. We’ll be better citizens.”
The Vose School was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, but that doesn’t prevent it from being torn down or developed in a way that has nothing to do with its history.
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