After years of construction delays and design setbacks, the City of Greensburg officially re-opened the Big Well Museum last Saturday.

After years of construction delays and design setbacks, the City of Greensburg officially re-opened the Big Well Museum last Saturday.

Throngs of visitors and anxious locals waited in blustery winds and mid-ninety degree heat to be some of the first few to walk through the doors of the iconic golden spiral museum.

“The last week has been very busy for us, the last two weeks really,” said Big Well Manager Stacy Barnes the day before the grand re-opening.  “We started to move out of the Incubator and we’ve been getting settled here at the museum. It’s very exciting but it’s been a lot of work.”

Still unpacking craft-brown bags and stacking books on shelves, Barnes and her staff were confidently hopeful that the museum would be able to live up to the anticipation and expectations of visitors, who would carry their nostalgia for the old Big Well through the doors with them.

“I hope people take away an experience,” continued Barnes. “Not only the well, but also the stories that we tell inside [the museum]. I hope they are emotionally affected. We’ve already seen that happen the last couple of days with people sneaking in early. They’ve come out and been very moved by what they’ve seen.”

Workers were still making last minute fixes and adjustments during the 2 p.m. opening ceremony, which drew an estimated 200 people.

“We could not be more thrilled and excited to be here today for this historic event,” said Barnes to the gathered crowd. “For the past five years me and my employees have had to tell people, sorry, you can not go into the well. We’re very glad that we don’t have to say that any more.”

Barnes introduced speakers which included Mayor Bob Dixson, architects from Law-Kingdon, representatives from USDA Rural Development, McCowan Gordon Construction, museum display designers Project Explore and display fabricators 3 Axis Inc.

“Today is the re-opening of our heritage here in Greensburg and Kiowa County,” said Dixson. “It’s what we are known for, the home of the Big Well. There have been a lot of hands that have put a lot of effort into this building.”

Roger Brown, director of design for Law-Kingdon Architects thanked members of the city council and offered a brief insight into the completion of his design. 

“When you enter into the building today you are going to see the design I saw in my head some 18 months ago,” said Brown. “It was as clear in my head then, as it is today. The story of the Big Well and the tornado are all symbolized in this form. Greensburg, this is your story, this is your history, this is your future.”

Representatives from McCownGordon Construction, the Kansas City, Mo., based eco-builder who also built the USD 422 Kiowa County Schools Building, spoke briefly but earnestly about their second integral Greensburg building.

“This was an amazing project, a true partnership,” said McCownGordon Senior Project Manager Eric Turner. “Thank you for letting us be part of this, part of the school and the museum, it means a lot to use to be part of your rebuilding.”

The more than thirty displays and interactive exhibits were created by Overland Park-based museum designers Project Explore and fabricated by Kansas City-based 3 Axis Inc.

“This represents your stories and I hope we were true to them,” said Project Explore partner Linda Segebrecht. “Ed Schoenberger often says that what’s on those walls is what will be the truth. We did our darnedest. We want to thank every person who sat and cried and told us their story.”

Following the speeches and a ribbon cutting, the crowd of visitors poured through the glass doors and into the museum.

Past the amply stocked gift shop, and the easy-to-miss-on-first-glance tornado shaped information desk, the museum opens up behind an obstructing wall.

The new Big Well Museum was fitted with a new spiral staircase that brings visitors two flights down into the well. The stairs no longer go to the bottom.

The new stairs also go two flights up to an indoor observation deck with a 360-degree view of Greensburg.

Surrounding the well are tall cylindrical walls covered from floor to ceiling with pre- and post-tornado history, including a large section devoted to the founding of Greensburg in 1886. Many of the walls have pullout drawers and cubbies that contain artifacts related to nearby displays.

A number of large items are presented in glass cases about the museum floor including the pallasite meteor  — which had been moved from its temporary home in the lobby of the Greensburg City Hall  — a dented and tornado damaged warning siren and a tall glass box filled with coins retrieved from the bottom of the well by divers.

“It’s lovely,” said Bev Bauber, a 60-year Greensburg resident. “It’s bigger than the old one. Now, I did walk down the old well but I was younger in those days. I won’t walk down into this one. I’d be able to walk down, but I don’t know if I could walk back up,” laughed Bauber. “They did a really nice job and I love the panoramic pictures.”

Mike Foster and Cheri White, a couple from Wichita both had fond, but different memories of the old Big Well.

“[My family] used to drive back and forth through western Kansas and we’d stop through here over the years,” said Foster who was visiting Greensburg for the first time after the May 4, 2007 tornado.  “It was one of our favorite attractions. I kind of miss going into the old well, it was a very nostalgic period for me. Those pictures on the wall, that’s the way I remember it. But this new museum oh, it’s awesome.”

“I lived in Mullinville when I was in second grade, said White. “I came to the Big Well when we would come into Greensburg to go shopping and stuff.”

It was a special trip for White, who brought along her grand daughter Katie, who is the same age as when she visited the old Big Well.  “She’s going to be in second grade next year and I wanted her to see this. I’m impressed. It’s kind of different, but it’s the same well.”

Stephanie Gordon, whose late great-grandmother Denise Hargadine was a longtime Greensburg resident, traveled all the way from Illinois to attend the grand opening. She remembered coming to the Big Well during visits as a child, and said she liked the new building. 

“I think [the museum] is wonderful,” said Gordon who had not been back since the 2007 tornado. “I think it is a real tribute. It’s a nice way for me to understand both the history of Greensburg and what has happened since the tornado.”

The iconic building with the nearly $4 million price tag caps a five-year slate of major municipal construction projects that included the Greensburg SunChips Incubator, City Hall building, the Main Street project and the Greensburg Industrial Park.

The Big Well project, hampered by disagreements between the city and original architects BNIM during the summer of 2010, was delayed nearly a year while Law-Kingdon and city officials redesigned the museum from scratch.

A number of initially proposed features for the museum were eliminated to reduce costs.

One of the biggest came in the elimination of the geo-thermal heating and cooling system that was replaced with a traditional HVAC system, which uses natural gas. Cost cutting measures took the building out of the running for a LEED certification and is the only current city building that is not certified.

The Big Well broke ground in mid-September of 2011 and was completed in time for it’s scheduled grand opening last Saturday May 26.

“There is definitely a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from the several years of work to get where we are,” said Barnes. “Now that the well is open we will be able to better market Greensburg to get tours to come see us. The work isn’t done.”