GREENSBURG — In 1887, farmers, cowboys, transients and mules built the Big Well.
Now, a partnership of museum designers will try to add more wonder to one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas.
They plan to build a below-grade, high-tech, interactive museum around the rustic World's Largest Hand-Dug Well, which was formed with stones hauled by wagon from a river.
Designers say the museum will tell Greensburg's multiple tales — the tale of the well, the tale of the tornado, and the tale of the "green" rebirth of the community.
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The city is allocating $3 million for it, hoping that the well and museum will draw tourist dollars to help it grow.
"We've all been down the well," said Steve Hewitt, city administrator, "but this will be something new and different, and capture a new audience."
BNIM Architects of Kansas City, Mo., which did the master plan for rebuilding the town and designed many of its new buildings, is designing the structure of the museum. Project Explore Inc., an Overland Park nonprofit museum consultant, is collecting stories and artifacts to provide the content.
They needed somebody to design the exhibits, and decided to aim for the top, so they approached Ralph Appelbaum Associates Inc. of New York.
That firm designed exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and Bill Clinton's presidential library in Little Rock.
It didn't take long for the firm to decide to join the project in Greensburg.
"It's the stories that attract us to a project, "said Tim Ventimiglia, an associate at Ralph Appelbaum who is directing the project.
"We don't think of it as a small town as much as we think of it as a big story that happened in a small town."
Ventimiglia was impressed by Greensburg's effort to rebuild after a 2007 tornado destroyed 95 percent of the town.
"We're very interested in the kind of endurance and stamina and all the vision that represented," he said. "Like the traits of early pioneers, that character is somehow evident in this will to rebuild and re-think the town.
"It's like a second settlement."
Ventimiglia called the Big Well "a terrific historic structure" and a "remarkable engineering feat in its day."
"It's a terrific space. You almost don't have to do anything," he said. "But we're interested in making it accessible and inspirational for people who stop in Greensburg."
Well museum's design
Visitors will enter the well along a descending ramp that leads to a below-grade gallery where the top 10 feet of the well will be exposed, said Hans Nettelblad, project manager with BNIM.
The well will be the centerpiece of the gallery and be surrounded by a circular wall of drawers and panels that visitors may open to hear an audio clip from a storm survivor or a well historian, and see an artifact or a document or a letter, Ventimiglia said.
The design also features a "wishing-well" concept. Visitors may type in a wish when they enter museum, then watch it be projected onto and descend the well's wall.
The well's ancient stairs will be replaced with new ones, and visitors will be able to climb down to the bottom of the 109-foot-deep well, Nettelblad said
Construction is scheduled to begin in May. Designers hope to complete it in time for the 2011 anniversary of the May 4, 2007, tornado.
A tourist destination
The Big Well needed help. It hadn't been updated in 30 years.
"It just kind of was here," Hewitt said.
It always drew visitors, he said, but they always left town after looking at the well.
The museum, which will include the pallasite meteorite that had been on display at the well since 1949 until the tornado, will transform the well from a roadside attraction to a tourist destination, Hewitt said.
Funding for the $3 million project is from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, insurance, donations and a half-cent sales tax dedicated to the well that the town passed in 2006, Hewitt said.
The costs are still being finalized and grants are being sought. The project could expand if the grants come in, Hewitt said.
Nettelblad said it's not wasted money. A city must take care of its top tourist attraction.
"When it was just a hole in the ground, it would get 50,000 visitors a year, "he said. "After the storm, they got 75,000. In slow years it averaged 35,000.
"Once this goes in, this is going to be even that much more of a revenue generator for the town, and also will have an education piece for visitors."
Tami Raber, who works the cash register in the temporary souvenir shop at the well and sees a steady stream of visitors in warm months, said she is excited about the plans.
"'We've needed it for quite some time because we have so much history," she said.
Merchants in town expect the museum to help their businesses.
Scott Reinecke, owner with his wife, Susan, of Studio 54, a glass art studio and gallery in the SunChips Business Incubator on U.S. 400, said people from all over the world have stopped at the store. Business is doing better than expected, and the museum will improve it, he said.
"People coming to town for that are going to stop and do other things, hopefully — maybe buy some food and go shopping," he said.
Source of inspiration
The museum's contents will shape the design of the exhibits, Ventimiglia said.
Linda Segebrecht, a principal with Project Explore, spent two days with her co-principal gathering stories and artifacts related to the well and the tornado.
They spoke to 15 people, including some who had never talked about the tornado before, she said.
They spoke to somebody who remembered sweeping the stairs of the well and collecting money that had been thrown into it by visitors as their pay.
"Fifteen cents was a great day then," Segebrecht said.
The tornado destroyed a house nearby, leaving only one room. But that room contained nine boxes full of Greensburg history.
"It's a gold mine," she said.
Segebrecht said she spent a portion of both days she was in town crying with people.
"They were still alive, and the tornado had really not dampened their spirits, and you could feel it when they talked. That's what we want to translate," she said.
Ventimiglia said designers want to make sure the museum reflects the voice of the people, not the voice of the designers.
They want to retain the roadside appeal of the well and not create a slick designer experience around that.
"We want to preserve the small-town quirk and charisma of the well, and of the Big Well Museum that was there and was an attraction for about 70 years," he said.
The symbolism of a well, where people throw things in to make wishes and to hope and dream, is a key component of the project, Ventimiglia said.
A well is a source of inspiration, where one can experience regenerative powers.
"Maybe this well in a way has those powers for the town and the people of Greensburg," he said.