Imagine taking a long-neglected building that has aged through Pittsburgh summers and winters since the 1800s — and has stood empty and decaying since a lightning strike more than a decade ago — and transforming it into an inspiring, healthy and sustainable, state-of-the-art laboratory and museum for 21st-century students.

And do it on a budget. In fewer than 18 months.

To make things even more complicated, imagine that each time you think you finally have the architectural plans laid out in detail for this remarkable old/new space, you discover surprises. Good ones crop up, like hidden, 19th-century coffered ceilings and long-forgotten oil paintings abandoned in this former Carnegie Library, but somehow still intact. But troublesome surprises keep erupting as well, like unexpected water leaks that led to hidden black mold in the years when no one was caring for this stunning structure and that now seems nearly impossible to fix.

And whether a given day brings good discoveries or bad ones, know that every surprise means the design plans have to be reconceived and redrawn, and the work of everyone — from the architect and the construction project manager, to the museum’s project director and its executive director, to the chairperson of the charitable initiative to fund this project — is impacted. 

This is the story of Museum Lab, a sprawling new addition to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh complex, which will open soon as part of the country’s largest cultural campus for families.

The Assembly Hall at the soon-to-open Museum Lab. Photo courtesy of Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Unlike other children’s facilities around the nation, Museum Lab will focus not on younger kids or on older teenagers, but on the important cohort in between — the tween-aged middle schoolers who find “children’s museums” too young for them, but who need and deserve a creative place where they can step away from Snapchat and Fortnite long enough to expand their minds and skills.

This once-epic but long empty Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny building, located on the eastern edge of the Children’s Museum’s property at Allegheny Commons on the North Side, is the perfect place for Museum Lab. It will soon house Manchester Academic Charter School’s middle school along with a public museum and lab space.

But the road to developing this project — beginning with meetings and planning in the summer of 2017 and under construction since January of 2018 — has been challenging and full of unexpected curveballs, including the discovery of gargoyles lurking behind an entryway wall.

Four of the five women at the helm of the construction of Museum Lab (left to right: Christi Saunders, Chris Cieslak, Jane Werner and Julie Eizenberg. Not pictured: Karen Larrimer). Photo courtesy of Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

“It’s maddening, because it has an effect on budgets and the schedule and stress levels,” says Chris Cieslak, project director for the soon-to-open Museum Lab at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. “And so we get upset with each other. But there’s a high degree of trust among the team members that we’re all pulling in the same direction. There’s a really deeply ingrained sense of history and place in the work that we do. And so every time we do have one of these discoveries, we get together and we try to figure out what to do that honors all of those values.”

The “we” that Cieslak refers to is the remarkable team of five women who are shaping and leading this ambitious project. Along with Cieslak — who originally came to Pittsburgh to design public spaces including PNC Park and CAPA High School, and has also supervised major construction projects elsewhere in the country and served as an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel overseeing engineering planning in Afghanistan — that team consists of:

Julie Eizenberg, the Museum Lab’s architect and co-founder of Koning Eizenberg ArchitectureChristi Saunders, the Mascaro Construction Company construction engineer working as on-site project manager, Jane Werner, the Children’s Museum‘s executive director and Karen Larrimer, PNC’s head of retail banking and chief customer officer, who serves as chairperson for the project’s capital campaign fund.

When you speak to each of these accomplished women about Museum Lab, two things happen: First, you hear their excitement at developing this unique, hands-on learning space for Pittsburgh’s families, and for kids worldwide who will benefit from research that will happen there.

Along with offering a wide range of project-based learning opportunities, the Museum Lab will collect data and study the impact of this hands-on, goal-oriented style of learning, which is increasingly favored by education experts. 

The second thing that happens when you ask these women about Museum Lab is that each member of this all-star team takes moments to note the contributions of the others.

Werner praises Eizenberg for the work she’s done on the original Children’s Museum building and on this new project, and she speaks of the mutual respect among the entire team.

“We laugh a lot,” Werner says, smiling. “At the same time, we argue a lot.”

Eizenberg points out that Werner and Cieslak spent their Christmas holiday at the drafty, unheated construction site to arrange vintage tiles into their original pattern on the upstairs lobby floor.

“Jane, who I think follows after Mr. Rogers, said, ‘We can’t throw these tiles away. We’ll come in and reinstate the pattern,'” Eizenberg remembers. “They put together the old tiles that had been put aside. … It was their Christmas project. It must have been freezing in there!”

Meanwhile, Cieslak says the team is lucky to have Saunders on board. Since the beginning, Cieslak says, Saunders has encouraged the idea of exploring what was underneath the historic building’s more recent renovations.

Just one example: A room on the second floor had been “renovated in the ’70s and the ceiling was really low and flat and sterile,” Cieslak says. It could have been left intact, but instead Saunders told the group, “You know what? You could have the ’70s ceiling that’s sterile, or you could uncover that 1890’s ceiling.” It was more work, but definitely worth the effort.

Cieslak’s eyes light up as she describes it: “When you see it, you’ll be blown away,” she says, “because it’s curved and it’s coffered and it’s historic and it’s beautiful. And it just makes the space.”

A rendering of the Grable Gallery, showing the dramatic glass ceiling and original tile floor. Courtesy of Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

As these surprises have cropped up, Saunders and Cieslak have worked more extensively with Eizenberg than is common, since the architectural plans have required frequent updating.

“She’s very creative and she’s a visionary, and she gets the Children’s Museum aesthetic,” Cieslak says of Eizenberg. “And she gets the budgetary concerns — to some degree.”

That aside elicited laughter from both Saunders and Cieslak. A cheerful sense of humor seems to be a recurring theme at Museum Lab. Despite their levels of accomplishment and skill, these women seem entirely comfortable setting their egos aside and finding humor in challenges. It’s an ongoing balancing act.

Eizenberg, Cieslak says, “proposes the designs that will work with what we’re trying to do. We’re the ones that are implementing that design, but we have to be conscious of opportunities that we uncover. Christi has been great about identifying areas where we could really make the space more inspirational.”