GREENSBURG — Four years after a tornado destroyed nearly all of the community, Greensburg is rebuilding its museum in the shape of a tornado. In designing the Big Well Museum, architect Roger Brown said he wanted a building that could both tell the story and legacy of the people of Greensburg but yet, be a symbol of the mighty forces of nature.
The building will have a ground floor and mezzanine overlook and be designed in a spiral — the shape of both a tornado and the well, he said.
The new building is expected to cost $3.2 million and be completed in the spring, depending on the whims of Kansas nature and weather.
"I kept looking for symbols in nature," Brown said. "I wanted something that tells the story of destruction and rebirth."
For math buffs, the museum's new building is patterned after the Fibonacci Sequence — digits that continue for eternity without repeating themselves. The spiral shape is found continually in nature, Brown said, in sunflowers, in tornadoes and the galaxy.
The spiral theme of the new building will continue in shaping its parking lot and landscaping — even into the stairs leading down in to the well.
"We wanted it to be something that was iconic for the city as well as the state," Brown said. "When you think of cities like St. Louis and its wonderful archway, Wichita's Keeper of the Plains, we wanted this to be something that would tell the story of Greensburg. Architecture without symbolism falls flat. And, when you overlay the storm radius over our site, it comes down right over the well. The well, during that storm, was the calm of the storm's eye. You look at the storm and everything else is spiraling outward."
On Monday, two bulldozers stood on the parking lot site ready for construction to begin as nearly 50 city leaders and residents gathered at the site of the Big Well to celebrate their next groundbreaking.
Among those was Brown, a design architect for LawKingdon Architecture of Wichita who passionately championed for the honor to help the city rebuild its most iconic symbol.
The well itself has always been and still is the anchoring point of Greensburg, said Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixon.
The groundbreaking is another sign of the town's recovery, he said.
"Greensburg has always been known as home of the largest hand-dug well," Dixon said. "But now we are known for several things — the well, the tornado, and being green and sustainable. The well is the historic fabric of this community and region. It is highly critical we rebuild the museum to continue growing. This is now about attracting tourism and visitors to our town."
When the May 2007 tornado destroyed the building that housed the world's largest hand-dug well, city leaders vowed to rebuild.
The Big Well was dug in 1888 using shovels, picks, pulley and rope, and mules. It is 109 feet deep and 32 feet across. It was built when both Santa Fe and Rock Island Railroads were laying tracks across western Kansas. A reliable water source was needed, and a deep well was dug. It served as the city's main water source until 1932.
In January 2008, the well was listed as one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.
"When we look back, one of the best events to come out of this sesquicentennial year will be the rebuilding of the Big Well (museum)," said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation near Inman, which helps promote rural culture. "The reopening of the Big Well will be the symbolic return of Greensburg."
When the tornado hit Greensburg, the population of the town was slightly over 1,400 residents, Dixon said. The latest Census figures put that population now at 777 residents.
"We will climb back," Dixon said. "I am very optimistic about that. We are going to keep working on economic development. The process will now be on jobs and employment. It's about people."
Featured exhibits in the new museum building will tell not only the well's history but also the area's link with meteorites: Brenham meteorites, named for Brenham Township near Haviland, that fell some 20,000 years ago.
In recent years, record-breaking meteorites — some as big as 1,000 to 1,400 pounds have been discovered in the area. One of those 1,000-pound meteorites, discovered in 1948, was previously displayed in the old museum. It was found near the Big Well after the tornado and is now housed in the new City Hall. It will return to the Big Well site when the new building is completed.
McCownGordon Construction of Kansas City will oversee construction of the museum.
For generations, the Big Well was a stopping point along U.S. 54. Visitors could stand at the top of the well, throw coins into the well and make wishes or climb the steep stairs down to the bottom of the well.
"This is our main tourist attraction," said Stacy Barnes manager of the Big Well. "It is something that is very close to the hearts of everybody here. The Big Well was here for the founding of Greensburg and it is here for the founding of the new Greensburg."