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Children's Museum unveils face lift, expansion for '06

If all goes well, the Children's Museum will start construction on a $45 million expansion and renovation project by early 2006, CEO Lou Casagrande said yesterday.

The project will add a 23,000-square-foot structure to the museum's existing 150,000-square-foot building, create a landscaped waterfront park, and raise the grade of the land surrounding the complex to link it with the harborwalk under development in the Fort Point Channel area.

Though the timetable could change slightly, Casagrande said he expects the project -- which includes a renovation of the brick warehouse that's been the museum's home since 1978 -- to be completed by the end of 2007. He said he won't know until next month whether the Children's Museum will have to close for the project.

In addition, the museum is negotiating to bring a new restaurant into the space currently rented to McDonald's, the fast-food chain that will leave at the end of this year. That's in line with what Casagrande calls the museum's renewed emphasis on health and fitness.

''We're going to do all we can to get kids off the couch and away from the computer screen," Casagrande said. ''We're going to get them dancing. We're going to get them climbing together."

With the announcement, the Children's Museum joins an unprecedented cultural building boom in Boston. Other projects include the Museum of Fine Arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Museum of Science, and a pair of museums slated for the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The closest in proximity to the Children's Museum is the Institute of Contemporary Art, set to open on nearby Fan Pier in September. Casagrande said the Children's Museum, which has a $9.3 million annual budget, has raised about $30 million toward its project.

There were general concerns ''that so many projects were being done here," said Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association, which has been closely following both the ICA and Children's Museum. ''But [Casagrande] actually found that the Children's Museum has positioned itself in such a way that they're not competing with the MFA and ICA."

Though the expansion will dramatically alter the appearance of the Children's Museum -- and create a new, central entrance -- the project will incorporate many of the institution's most popular exhibits. KidStage will be bigger, and moved from the fourth to the first floor. PlaySpace will remain. Boats Afloat will be expanded, and the existing Construction Zone tunnel structure will be rebuilt inside the new building.

The oversize milk bottle outside the museum will also remain.

There was talk of removing it ''for about 10 seconds," Casagrande said. ''But it's an icon, and it's a symbol of what we stand for. It's going to be moved slightly, totally redone into a milk bottle plaza with a maze made of marble and brick."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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