To give an idea of what Quad-Citians can expect to see at a new museum in an old Rock Island church, the description of the historic document collection is described as: "everything from 5,000-year-old clay tablets to Harry Potter-related items."
The person doing the describing is Christopher Kelly, director of the two Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums in Buffalo, N.Y. There are Karpeles Museums in nine other states, but New York is the only state with two.
The Rock Island site will become the 12th and is expected to open, at least partially, in early 2012.
Kelly said he expects to arrive in Rock Island within two weeks and will oversee the adaptive reuse of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, at 7th Avenue and 22nd Street. The church, which opened in 1915, has been vacant for about 15 years.
The building's neoclassical style of architecture is similar to many of the historic buildings that house the Karpeles collection, which is billed as the world's largest private assembly of important documents and manuscripts.
"We purposely seek out structures like the one in Rock Island, because they appeal to Dr. (David) Karpeles," Kelly said, referring to the founder. "They look like museums and (resemble) the Library of Congress."
In fact, Kelly recently learned the original congregants sought out a particular architect for the design of the church, which became the first of its kind in Illinois.
"Oddly enough ... they contacted the architect who built our buildings in Buffalo," he said. "Unfortunately, he died on them (before he could create a design)."
One of the Buffalo buildings, the North Hall, also is a former Christian Science church.
Each of the museums shares operational traits. Each uses 25 display areas for primary exhibits. The continuity simplifies the movement of pieces of the collection, which are rotated several times a year.
Kelly described the criteria for selecting pieces for the Karpeles collection:
"Number one is that the subject matter must be contained in the Encyclopedia Britannica," he began. "Secondly, the subject matter ... must make sense to a fifth grader. Number three is that we simply disregard the first and second criteria.
"One of the beauties of the collection is that there is no rhyme or reason. But it is a truly astounding collection."
The first parts of the collection to appear in Rock Island will relate to Mississippi River-loving author Mark Twain.
"Our Twain collection has been very popular in western New York and other areas of the country," Kelly said. "We were the first to publish (show to the public) some of the material."
Before any part of the Karpeles collection arrives in Rock Island, the old church must undergo considerable restoration, Kelly said. The immediate concern, he said, is "sealing it up.
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"The window and roof issues are being addressed as we speak. They're working on restoring the utilities today (Wednesday)."
The entrance foyer is likely to house the first of the exhibits as a "fast-track section" of the church-turned-museum, he said.
"This is a big deal for us," he said. "We're really excited."
Diane Oestrich, a longtime preservation advocate, said she shares Kelly's excitement, largely because the old church is getting new life.
"We had an open house in there in about 1984, and we had the organ playing then," she said Wednesday. "They have one that is very similar to ours in another of the museums. It's so nice to see that old church get a chance."
Kelly said the church's appearance will remain largely intact.
"It really is a true joy to have people come in and say, ‘I remember when,'" he said. "The use of these historic places enhances the patron experience. Ultimately, our goal is to serve the communities."